SF Film Regressivism and Progressivism and Revisionism

by John Holbo on January 26, 2011

Teaching ‘Philosophy and Film’ this semester, with a focus on sf, I’m amused to read this bit from a Salon piece by Michael Lind:

If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval – hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.

He’s got the film history wrong. Metropolis came before Star Wars. Hell, so did Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times: that’s dystopian sf. Also, it isn’t really right to say that the theme of Star Wars is ‘technology bad’. Star Wars is really more a case of lacking a ‘science good’ message. Also, Star Trek is conspicuously moderate in its pro-science thematizing. Kirk is the captain, exemplifying the properly adventurous equilibrium point between McCoy’s emotionalism and Spock’s rationalism. Hell, that’s the theme of Metropolis, too. You need ‘mediation’ and ‘moderation’ between pure science and … some more human source of meaning.

I think we should distinguish at least six or seven stances.

1. The straight pro-science, pro-rationality sf film. Like Things To Come or The Day The Earth Stood Still. The heroes are the scientists, the rather (coldly) rational types, and the (comic) villains are human beings, with their petty, tribal ways.

2. The straight anti-science, anti-reason sf film. I think most cases that would fall into this category are ambiguous, because they tend to involve visual machine fetishism of a sort – the romance of disaster, so we tend to get a love-hate relationship with science. Dark City, for example. The Machines in The Matrix (but this gets complicated, especially as the trilogy moves to its ‘reconciliation’ conclusion, or lack thereof – lack of a conclusion, that is.) The true-blue natives in Avatar. There is definitely a ‘let’s break the machines and get back to nature, recover innocence of childhood’ theme in a lot of sf film. 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. (The exception that proves the rule is Saruman and his ‘mind of wheels’, which is played up more in the film.)

3. The moderate sf film that makes a point of splitting the difference. Science is good but it needs to be humanly sensible science, not pure science, which would be mad science. The lesson is: we need to stay rooted in … whatever the film says the true, human values are: love, childhood, patriotism, friendship, community, some sort of ‘authenticity’. Possibly we need science, and admire scientists and value the products of science, but scientists shouldn’t be allowed to call the shots. A scientist who calls the shots automatically suffers from hubris and is likely to turn out to be a robot. It isn’t quite right to say that these films say science should always be a means, not an end (although some might say exactly that). In other cases, there is some acknowledgment that the impulse to science is ethically noble, in itself, but it shouldn’t be allowed to run to exclusive extremes. 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.)

4. SF films that say that science really doesn’t matter, one way or the other. It’s not good, in itself, nor really bad – nor even really a danger, except insofar as it may be a distraction from what’s really important. I think examples might be: Eternal Sunshine and A.I. and 2001. (Do you see why I think those are examples?)

5. SF films that really aren’t ‘about’ science at all, in any interesting thematic sense, despite being full of science props. The Fifth Element.

6. SF films that aren’t really ‘about’ science, except secondarily, insofar as there is some atmosphere of anxiety about science, or uncanny threat from a technological product. But really the ‘philosophical’ issue is something more metaphysical and distinct and plausibly timeless: personal identity, for example. (Maybe we could put a lot of films that might go under 4 under this heading.) Blade Runner, maybe?

Lind makes a point that points us to a possible seventh stance:

Today optimism about science and technology is found chiefly on the libertarian right. At least somebody still defends nuclear energy and biotechnology. But in libertarian thought, science and technology are divorced from their modernist counterparts – large-scale public and private organizations – and wedded to ideals of small producers and unregulated markets that were obsolete by the middle of the nineteenth century.

I don’t think there is much explicit techno-libertarian thematizing in sf film. It says something that Heinlein hasn’t been sent ‘straight’ to the screen. But the lone ‘science hero’ is a familiar figure. The eccentric inventor who isn’t a mad scientist. But it’s a bit hard to separate the existence of the rugged individual science protagonist from the fact that films like to have one person to focus on, for a variety of formal and commercial, i.e. not clearly philosophical reasons.

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. But that’s what comments are for.

Also, I would like to report that I just re-watched all three of the original Star Wars films with my daughters, who enjoyed them hugely. But I found they don’t hold up nearly as well as I had hoped – no, not even Empire. Sorry. On the other hand, Belle and I rewatched Dune last night, and it’s great! How’s by you, sf film revisonism-wise?

{ 83 comments }

1

Teri 01.26.11 at 6:06 am

Great article, I enjoyed reading your viewpoint. Watching sf with your children is really the best way to figure out how these films fit into our lives. I used to watch Star Trek with my Dad, who gave me all his old pulp sf short stories etc. I have since passed them onto my kids. It is amazing how much of the technology from Star Trek has come into being….so our sf film might be viewed as history films in the future?

2

Matt McIrvin 01.26.11 at 6:08 am

The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original) is an anti-nuclear-weapons film. Definitely ambivalent about science and technology.

2001 involves a guy struggling with a killer machine! And technology as part of the way humanity makes giant evolutionary leaps, for better or worse. While it’s not easily defined, I don’t think its attitude is all that neutral, though that might be more Clarke than Kubrick talking.

George Pal’s Destination Moon was, in fact, Heinlein straight to the screen, though it was an original story by Heinlein rather than an adaptation.

3

don't quote me on that 01.26.11 at 6:41 am

You might find interesting this piece at HiLoBrow on the semiotics of “Stars Wars.”

http://hilobrow.com/2010/07/14/star-wars-semiotics/

4

Z 01.26.11 at 6:42 am

The exception that proves the rule is Saruman and his ‘mind of wheels’, which is played up more in the film

Having ended my exhaustive reading of said book just yesterday, I can confirm that the mind of wheels is definitely played up in the book: just re-read the description of the “factory” which replaced the mill at Hobbiton.

5

des von bladet 01.26.11 at 7:09 am

Star Wars isn’t actually science fiction at all: it’s all about wizards and magic swords and quests and stuff. Space-opera trappings aside, it is an exercise in watching George Lucas take Joseph Cambell seriously.

Still preferable to Star Trek, though.

6

Dave Bath 01.26.11 at 7:13 am

Matt@2 said “2001 involves a guy struggling with a killer machine!”

Well, only only a killer because the machine had been made psychotic by being forced to lie/dissemble by the politicians in direct conflict to his basic programming that valued truth and accuracy in all things. My reading is that technology is amoral, the morality or immorality imposed by the humans involved – that HAL is almost a classical tragic figure, (as trapped by fate as Oedipus) unable to resolve his essentially decent “nature” (truth as his purpose), when forced by circumstances to lie.

7

maidhc 01.26.11 at 8:12 am

George Lucas has said that he was inspired by the old sci-fi movie serials like Buck Rogers, but he wanted to do them with better special effects. (At least that’s what he said when the first one came out.) It wasn’t really intended to make some big statement about something or have a plausible plot. But perhaps it got away from him.

I agree with des von bladet that’s it’s more about magic, and I think mostly Dr. Who is along the same lines. However, some of the Cybermen and Dalek stories explore the “science shouldn’t replace feelings” theme.

Blade Runner is interesting because as we approach the year it’s set in, we see that its predictions are mostly wrong (flying cars but no cellphones), but I still find it a good movie. 2001 was equally wrong in its predictions, but to me it has a much more 1960s period feel to it, just like Metropolis has a 1920s feel.

I see Lord of the Rings as a comment on the First World War and the years following. Even though the good guys win the war, their world is changed in the process and loses its magic. But it has a lot of other aspects too.

8

David Roden 01.26.11 at 8:19 am

Great Post.

Literary Science fiction seems able to adopt a much less reactionary attitude to science and technology. For example, Stross’ Accellerando has dystopian elements (notably, the horrible Economics 2.0) but manages an ironically affirmative stance towards its character’s transition from humans to posthumans (or post-felines!).

This may be an artifact of a certain kind of narrative cinema – a concern with tight dramatic structure rather than world-building that requires radical science or tech to have apocalyptic or dystopian consequences (a historic falsification, of course) That said, there are moments within these films where we read them against their grain. A ‘Dark Lord Revisionist’ take on LoTR might present Saruman as tragic Enlightenment hero, etc.

9

John Holbo 01.26.11 at 8:33 am

“2001 involves a guy struggling with a killer machine!”

Yes, but it’s significant that overcoming the killer machine is something that happens on the way to ‘childhoods end’. It’s more of a sideline on the spiritual journey. This happens, also, in Eternal Sunshine. The ‘memory erasers’ have to be grappled with, but they are oddly secondary, thematically.

10

John Holbo 01.26.11 at 8:36 am

“Star Wars isn’t actually science fiction at all: it’s all about wizards and magic swords and quests and stuff. Space-opera trappings aside, it is an exercise in watching George Lucas take Joseph Cambell seriously.”

Yes, but that’s what H.G. Wells said about his own ‘scientific romances’. He was just ‘updating the fetish stuff’, as he put it. I think it’s still sf, although everything else you say is true.

11

JulesLt 01.26.11 at 8:57 am

I’m not convinced that optimism about science and technology is largely on the libertarian right, simply because a lot of scientists and technologists are on ‘the left’ (or at least by the definition of the right), while a lot of people on the libertarian right pursue an anti-science agenda, as part of their wider anti-rational agenda – ‘you can prove anything with facts’.

Of course there’s a romantic anti-technology stream on the left too – but to a degree, at least that often uses science and the scientific method, as part of it’s arguments against technology. There are definite emotional angles (i.e. the reluctance to consider the possibility of nuclear being safer for the global environment, even taking into account existing levels of nuclear pollution, let alone newer forms of reactor).

Bio-technology is something ambiguous too – leftists are more suspicious of the corporate ownership of genes, plants and medicines rather than the ‘messing around with what god intended’ aspect.

(It is a good point about the strand of gluing high technology to small producers and unregulated markets, and that’s something Stross has been exploring in his series of blog posts about working out the minimum size and infrastructure for creating a real settler ship – a lot more than a horse and a wagon).

12

Phil 01.26.11 at 9:06 am

The danger from the science in Alien isn’t so much that it’s mad as that it’s anti-human (willing to get everyone killed in order to have a look at the alien) – and there’s at least the strong implication that capitalism is complicit in this (the company also sees the crew as expendable). So I’d say it’s a cross between 2 and 6 rather than a 3.

13

ajay 01.26.11 at 9:42 am

I’m interested that you put things like “Will Smith punching out aliens” in category 3. Independence Day was actually pretty unambiguously pro-science and technology. There wasn’t any splitting the difference involved; the bad guys had good technology, and the only way the humans beat them was by developing better technology. In this sense it’s really the inheritor of the Gainsborough Studio war film – say “The Dam Busters” or “The First of the Few” – in which the slightly unworldly boffin is just as much a hero as the daredevil pilot.

14

Scott Martens 01.26.11 at 11:36 am

ajay, I’ve argued before (somewhere but I’m not going to look for the URL) that “Independence Day” is romantic Third-Worldist anti-capitalism. The aliens are not beings of superior technology who are defeated by humans who do better. (I mean, c’mon! They hacked an alien spacecraft with a MacBook!) It’s Che Guevara motivating the workers and the peasants to grab whatever weapons they can find and go guerrilla on the invading exploiters who cynically want their land and its natural resources. Plus Will Smith punching an alien and giant explosions in outer space. (For all his flaws — and there are many — Emmerich knows what fills theaters.) Science is a backdrop at best, and the idea that aliens with force fields can be wiped out by F-16s is about on par with Vietnamese farmers taking out B-52s with their AK-47s.

15

Marcellina 01.26.11 at 11:47 am

“Star Wars” is “The Magic Flute” tweaked around a bit, which is a turned-around version of “Orfeo and Eurydice”.

16

John Holbo 01.26.11 at 12:31 pm

“The danger from the science in Alien isn’t so much that it’s mad as that it’s anti-human.”

I think Ash qualifies as a mad scientist. (He’s the science officer … not to mention a ROBOT!)

“There wasn’t any splitting the difference involved; the bad guys had good technology, and the only way the humans beat them was by developing better technology.”

Yes, that seems right.

17

Henry (not the famous one) 01.26.11 at 12:34 pm

Forget the story–what stays with me about Star Wars is the imagery and, in particular, those orange jumpsuits that the rebel pilots wore when going after the Death Star. That and the corny chatter between the pilots as they go in on their bombing run tells me that this was the Air Force winning the war it somehow inexplicably lost in Viet Nam, except this time they were attacking the monolithic Death Star, rather than a third world economy. Yes, Lucas portrayed them as plucky rebels who were in touch with the Force(TM), but when the chips were down, some F-14s saved civilization with a well-placed bomb. Its romantic militarism, not romantic primitivism.

18

Wesley 01.26.11 at 12:44 pm

Something to keep in mind is that often when these movies say “science” they actually mean “technology.” And they’re usually thinking of particular technologies–you don’t often see a story try to claim we’re being dehumanized by the wheel or the printing press.

19

Matt McIrvin 01.26.11 at 1:04 pm

Left/right vs. pro/anti science is complicated. In particular, the technological optimism on the libertarian right has a peculiar “engineering beats science” streak. There’s a tendency to discount any science that places limits on what technology can do–not just environmental warnings but even things like the theory of relativity, with its light-speed limit. There’s also a preference for things that seem concrete and nuts-and-bolts over anything excessively abstract, like quantum mechanics.

In the extreme, right-libertarian techno-optimists occasionally claim that the whole scientific enterprise has become corrupt and the torch has been taken up by engineers. You see this attitude in corners of the print-SF world, though it hasn’t really filtered through to film yet.

20

ajay 01.26.11 at 1:37 pm

what stays with me about Star Wars is the imagery and, in particular, those orange jumpsuits that the rebel pilots wore when going after the Death Star. That and the corny chatter between the pilots as they go in on their bombing run tells me that this was the Air Force winning the war it somehow inexplicably lost in Viet Nam, except this time they were attacking the monolithic Death Star, rather than a third world economy.

Couple of points on that:
Air Force pilots don’t wear orange flight suits, they wear olive-drab flight suits. Astronauts wear orange flight suits.

And the whole climactic attack sequence was based very closely on another “wisecracking pilots attack a heavily defended target to stop a superweapon” film, 633 Squadron. (When Lucas was putting Star Wars together, he even substituted clips from 633 Squadron for the not-ready-yet effects shots.)

21

ajay 01.26.11 at 1:41 pm

It’s Che Guevara motivating the workers and the peasants to grab whatever weapons they can find and go guerrilla on the invading exploiters who cynically want their land and its natural resources.

I think you’re thinking of a different film. The one I saw didn’t have any guerrilla attacks.

22

mds 01.26.11 at 2:14 pm

The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original) is an anti-nuclear-weapons film. Definitely ambivalent about science and technology.

Well, except there’s an advanced interstellar civilization out there that pretty obviously has some massive science and technology at its fingertips. This would seem to tie into Dave Bath’s observation @6 about “the morality or immorality imposed by the humans involved.” Humanity needs to stop being a bunch of stupid jerks, if it wants to keep advancing scientifically and technologically to the point where it can join the spacefarers’ UN. That’s not so much ambivalence about the science as disapproval of the “irrational” use to which it is being put. Hence, stance one.

23

roac 01.26.11 at 2:32 pm

As one who loved the first Star Wars nearly to death when it first came out (I can’t watch it now), I always thought its primitivism was deliberate; it was the recalled fantasy life of 14-year-old George Lucas decked out in state-of-the art production values. I read it in tandem with American Graffiti: Luke getting out of Tattooine = Lucas/Curt getting out of Modesto.

24

Sumana Harihareswara 01.26.11 at 2:37 pm

This kind of discussion makes it worthwhile to read just the first few chapters of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, the bit with the discursion on Iconographies.

25

Sufferin' Succotash 01.26.11 at 2:52 pm

In particular, the technological optimism on the libertarian right has a peculiar “engineering beats science” streak…You see this attitude in corners of the print-SF world, though it hasn’t really filtered through to film yet.

Actually, the Howard Hawks version of The Thing does depict a conflict between practical hands-on engineering and impractical visionary science. The scientist character is a naive airhead who believes in joining hands and singing Kumbaya with the alien. The wisecracking All-American flyboys know right from the start that the alien is nasty and immediately begin working on ways to fry the beast. Which is about what one would expect from John W. Campbell via Howard Hawks.

26

chris 01.26.11 at 2:55 pm

22: Humanity needs to stop being a bunch of stupid jerks, if it wants to keep advancing scientifically and technologically to the point where it can join the spacefarers’ UN.

What about the related “humanity needs to stop being a bunch of stupid jerks if it wants to keep advancing scientifically and technologically without blowing itself into radioactive dust”? I don’t think that quite fits into any of your categories. Science is beneficial, but also dangerous; but some human emotions are even worse, since they’re what drives people to use science to destroy each other. (But not all human emotions — compassion or comradeship or recognizing a decent person even when they wear the enemy’s uniform or something like that will often save us in the end in that kind of story.)

Maybe you could shoehorn it into 6 — man’s inhumanity to man being the timeless truth — but ISTM that science raising the stakes until we can’t afford to be the same old bloody-minded bastards we’ve been for the last 10,000 years takes it out of that category.

19: There’s a tendency to discount any science that places limits on what technology can do—not just environmental warnings but even things like the theory of relativity, with its light-speed limit.

IIRC, the main character of _Atlas Shrugged_ invents a perpetual motion machine, which is probably the origin of this theme in libertarian-leaning works (most of whose authors can probably be assumed to have read _AS_, other works heavily influenced by _AS_, or both).

27

roac 01.26.11 at 3:05 pm

I see Lord of the Rings as a comment on the First World War and the years following. Even though the good guys win the war, their world is changed in the process and loses its magic.

This is the thesis of T.A. Shippey’s second book — the one that was thrown together to cash in on the movies. To me, he doesn’t really develop it in any interesting ways, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

One of the more far-fetched items in my mental hoard of Tolkien nuggets is a parallel between LotR and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. In each, you have an impotent/sterile representative of the upper classes (Frodo/Sir Clifford), set in opposition to a conspicuously priapic/fertile representative of the lower classes (Sam/Mellors). There is plainly no direct influence in ether direction; I would say that each author is reacting — consciously in Lawrence’s case, less so in Tolkien’s — to a social change accelerated by the Great War. (It is of course fair ground for criticism of Tolkien that he dealt with it by promoting Sam to the gentry rather than weakening the class structure of the Shire.

(I came here expecting to have to argue with Holbo about Tolkien, which I have come to see as one of my main missions in life. But what the post says is quite correct, except that I don’t think of LotR as sci-fi.

28

Western Dave 01.26.11 at 3:26 pm

Seeing Star Wars in 6th grade and being guided through it by my mom who had an MA in English (esp. Chaucer), I believed Star Wars I (or IV) to be a take on the Roman Empire except the Senate wins with the help of all those slaves (robots and good non-humans) whereas the bad guys, human and non-human were all the Emperor’s military troops. Death to Caesar and all that. Technology just never figured into it. And we certainly didn’t understand it as a post Vietnam anything. And we would have been inclined to. So firmly a number 5 on that. I also remember that Mad magazine did a great take down of Star Wars.
http://www.madcoversite.com/mad196.html

29

Phil 01.26.11 at 3:37 pm

I think Ash qualifies as a mad scientist. (He’s the science officer … not to mention a ROBOT!)

Well, exactly – he’s not even human, but a personification of Science Itself!!1! (or Technology Itself!!1! if you insist). That gives him a creepy quality – and anti-science creepy – that I don’t think type-3 mad scientists tend to have.

Where do you put Forbidden Planet‘s Monsters From The Id?

30

Phil 01.26.11 at 3:40 pm

The question “Ash – mad scientist or monster?” reminds me that my son and I used to have long debates about Dr Who villains and serfsmonsters, specifically about who was which. (The Master – villain. The Daleks collectively – monsters. After that it gets complicated.)

31

ajay 01.26.11 at 3:50 pm

we certainly didn’t understand it as a post Vietnam anything. And we would have been inclined to.

No, the great 80s SF Vietnam allegory is “Gremlins”. I thought this was common knowledge.

32

laufeysson 01.26.11 at 4:24 pm

Back to Holbo’s specific point; IIRC J.G. Ballard (whom I regard as an authority in these matters) somewhere (in the book of Vale interviews? User’s Guide to the Millenium?) expressed his admiration for Star Wars as the first time cinematic techniques made it possible to depict “advanced technology in a state of decline”, which made Ballard very happy, because it set people up to begin to deal with post-industrial psychological realities. In other words the look of the cruddy Imperial ships and the smugglers spaceport was pessimistic regardless of Joseph Campbell’s influence on the nominal plot. This is a somewhat separate issue from the questions of ultimate allegorical content the thread has been asking. Maybe Ballard’s observation, again assuming I recall it correctly, is behind what Lind is trying to say?

33

Keith 01.26.11 at 5:44 pm

Its [Star Wars] romantic militarism, not romantic primitivism.

It’s more of a soft gooey core of romantic primitivism with a hard chocolaty shell of romantic militarism. We can overthrow the evil Civilization by appropriating their war technology, hacking it with Magic and then after the Gotterdamerung, we go back to Eden and have a picnic with the teddy bears.

34

Barry 01.26.11 at 5:48 pm

“In other words the look of the cruddy Imperial ships and the smugglers spaceport was pessimistic…”

That’s odd – I thought that the Imperial ships were clean and gleaming.

35

ajay 01.26.11 at 6:07 pm

33: demonstrating the essential tension between the two roots of European fascism: go-faster industrial Futurist Fascism and Ahnenerbe or Knitwear Fascism.

36

Matt McIrvin 01.26.11 at 6:31 pm

IIRC, the main character of Atlas Shrugged invents a perpetual motion machine, which is probably the origin of this theme in libertarian-leaning works

I was just thinking about how Robert Heinlein kept coming back to the scenario in which we start with something resembling his hard engineering-fiction worlds, but then there’s a sudden intrusion of magic, or something functionally the same as magic, that gives the characters godlike superpowers in which will or whim becomes reality. Usually it’s far more powerful even than, say, use of the Force.

Especially in his later works (but early stories like “Waldo” already play with it), Heinlein loved that disorienting moment in which all the limits just melt away, even if it destroyed the plot.

37

bianca steele 01.26.11 at 7:30 pm

Dark City in category 2? Maybe. Does “The City” have to equate to “Technology”? It is very unlike The Matrix in positing that the whole thing is SPOILER run by a small group of men who use a police force to carry out explicitly defined actions, otherwise mostly leaving people alone. END SPOILER Which doesn’t sound especially like science to me. Though it is unlike the Matrix, where the “Architect” (a real computer science/software engineering term, used more or less correctly) is a mythical personage, meeting whom will somehow give Neo the key to every nook and cranny of the System. I might say Dark City depicts a world in which science is forbidden, and may be actually impossible.

Ursula Le Guin’s review of Star Wars said, “[W]hat the hell is nostalgia doing in a science-fiction film? With all the future and the whole universe to play in, Lucas took his marvelous toys and crawled under the fringed cloth on the parlor table, back into a nice safe hideyhole, along with Flash Gordon and the Cowardly Lion and Huck Skywalker and the Flying Aces and the Hitler Jugend,” which for the most part is not really unfair, and is actually pretty descriptive of what Lucas said he was up to.

38

Matt McIrvin 01.26.11 at 7:36 pm

…Also, Atlas Shrugged was later than I thought it was, 1957. The whole no-limits-to-heroic-invention sentiment was alive in SF decades before that.

39

bianca steele 01.26.11 at 7:42 pm

I guess others have already made the point from the Le Guin quote, but it’s not just Campbell, and it’s not just the visual borrowings from Riefenstahl and from Spartacus–I think it’s the belief that a good film (the kind of film he felt wasn’t being made anymore) should draw on deeper thematic resonances from those early films and from the genre matinee films he grew up with.

40

bianca steele 01.26.11 at 7:54 pm

roac @ 27
Maybe not in Chatterley but in Kangaroo Laurence has the more moral among his European characters “revert” to paganism on transplantation to Australia, preferring its “dark gods” to such as “the bitch goddess success.”

41

roac 01.26.11 at 7:56 pm

I am actually old enough to remember when Atlas Shrugged was published. The review I remember said, more or less: The author evidently feels that readers missed the point of her previous novels, so she set out to write a novel whose point is impossible to miss.

42

Landru 01.26.11 at 8:33 pm

Slightly off the main topic, but since there are so many Star Wars Episode IV fans here it’s worth pointing out the real resonance is not post-Vietnam(-era) but, in an unanticipated way, post-9/11:

http://www.atom.com/blog/2010/04/22/a-dose-of-lobster-politics/

(The comments are not up to CT standards; but, hey, it’s got lobsters.)

43

F 01.26.11 at 9:27 pm

All Philip K. Dick stories are ultimately about identity/authenticity/”how do we know what’s really real?” Which is interesting because they always start out as dystopian world-building (i.e. what would the world look like if negative trend x were extended into the future). But none of them are really about science.

44

bianca steele 01.26.11 at 9:31 pm

Re. PKD: Some of them are about pharmacology and the technology of broadcasting thoughts into people’s brains, though I admit that’s a shallow reading. (sorry wrong thread previously)

45

Bruce Baugh 01.26.11 at 11:11 pm

Just a data point…

The first I heard of Star Wars was a bit before its release, in a piece in the Los Angeles Times’s Calendar section. (Ah, for the days when the Calendar section was meaty and engaging. Ah, for the days when the Times was something short of a total steaming pile of suck. But I digress. Signed, Get The Hell Off My Lawn) The pictures – of the Mos Eisely cantina and the interior of the Millennium Falcon, I believe – showed what the article described, a future (yeah yeah sure but it’s effectively a future) that’s worn and dinged up and patched and has a lot of kludgery and is just plain lived in.

That was really very different from either of the alternatives available in sf films around before that: centrally managed pristine environments, and post-apocalyptic wastes. The Star Wars universe is very much alive and functioning, but outside the actual sites of Imperial power, it’s all very chaotic and uses whatever comes along. Compare to…oh, 2001, Silent Running for the slide from the first alternative into the second, Logan’s Run for the two coexisting unawares, Zardoz, Planet of the Apes et seq, and so on. Westworld is one of the few preceding films that seems to me to feel pretty similar.

I’ve always been fascinated by the coupling of great, wide-ranging imagination in aspects like this with the storytelling that Le Guin rightly harshes on.

46

sg 01.27.11 at 12:09 am

Lind’s last point about libertarians being wedded to technology based on small producers and 19th century craftshop ideals seems completely wrong to me.

Libertarians are wedded to the military research establishment, nuclear power and big oil. They like oligarchic mega projects, not disaggregated cottage industry. This is why the (exceptionally rare) libertards who actually accept the reality of AGW immediately reject all forms of carbon offsetting and “alternative” energy in favour of … nuclear power.

Even in sf, they have nothing to contribute. In fact the best libertarian story in SF – Serenity – was made by someone who is definitely not himself a libertarian. They should have a nice long think about that.

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bianca steele 01.27.11 at 12:42 am

me @ 37:
Were they men? I think I spent some time thinking there was an antisemitic reading of Dark City, misled by the black-hatted guys in fedoras, but if the beings running everything were machines then I guess it’s science.

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js 01.27.11 at 7:12 am

Star Trek and Wars both depict scientifically advanced technocracies, and the Federation is a good one and the Empire is a bad one. But the Lind piece just seems wrong to trace that to rival conceptions of science. The Federation is good because it’s infused with touchy-feely democratic multiculturalism (especially in the Picard and Janeway incarnations), and the Empire is bad because it’s run by the dark zen wizard oligarchs instead of the good ones. Really, neither Wars or Trek implies that science generates the morally salient features of its focal regime, and both universes seem to admit of differently valenced societies with the same or similar scientific/technological infrastructure. It’s true that the rebels are de facto techno-primitivists, but, Ewoks notwithstanding, that’s obviously an artifact of their diminished position relative to the Empire and not a feature of their philosophical program.

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Kenny Easwaran 01.27.11 at 7:14 am

My partner and I just watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture the other day, and I was struck by the ways it seems to stick with certain of the anti-romantic realities of space travel. All the booster stages that are just discarded in space, and the jet packs that fire for exactly 10 seconds with no on and off. And this might be connected to the promotion of the actual NASA probe Voyager that had just launched a few years earlier. It’s interesting how it could be more “realistic” in some of these ways, despite all the totally hand-waved fake science about a planet of pseudo-intelligent machines and the like (even beyond the regular Star Trek issues of explosions in space, ships being vertically aligned, faster-than-light travel, and so on).

David Roden – I’m not sure if Accelerando is so enthusiastic about post-humanism. Sure the main characters become somewhat post-human, but this only really seems to be emphasized with Manfred Macx (and the cat). At other times, they’re explicitly contrasted with the (really post-human) “vile offspring”.

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Ginger Yellow 01.27.11 at 8:41 am

Gattaca does seem to me to be about the unfairness of gross “luck” egalitarianism, or to put it another way, biological meritocracy. I mean, sure it’s not a thesis on the subject, but that is very much the metaphysical context of the film.

As for category 6, I’d nominate The Day The Earth Caght Fire.

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Matt McIrvin 01.27.11 at 1:37 pm

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was anomalous in a lot of ways. It came out at a strange moment, when Star Wars had revealed science-fiction film to be hot again but nobody quite knew what this meant.

The other interesting failure from that year was Disney’s The Black Hole, which was a worse movie that didn’t know whether it wanted to be horror, adult SF or kids’ adventure. And then there was Alien, the big success.

All three of them had a certain ponderous, 2001 – derived quality that Star Wars didn’t have. For an atmospheric horror movie like Alien, it actually worked; for the other two, not so much. By the time The Wrath of Khan came out, the Star Trek people had figured out that what people wanted from SF movies now was fast-moving popcorn adventures.

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Matt McIrvin 01.27.11 at 1:37 pm

Aargh, the auto-strikeout was not what I was going for…

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Rob Patterson 01.27.11 at 1:47 pm

“I rewatched Dune last night, and it’s great!”

I’d love to hear you elaborate on that. I loved the book(s) but have never watched the movie a second time since it first came out. (I’m assuming you mean the Lynch movie, not the mini-series from the 2000s.)

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John Holbo 01.27.11 at 2:26 pm

Fixed. For some reason WordPress treats an italics close followed by a hyphen as an invitation to strikethrough.

Rob, it most certainly wasn’t the mini-series, which was terrible. “Dune” – the David Lynch film indeed – just looks tip-top, does a reasonable job of adapting the source material, and has some strong performances. The sets and costumes are great. The mid-80’s effects are used so judiciously that their weaknesses don’t really show much.

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jackd 01.27.11 at 4:24 pm

The pictures – of the Mos Eisely cantina and the interior of the Millennium Falcon, I believe – showed what the article described, a future (yeah yeah sure but it’s effectively a future) that’s worn and dinged up and patched and has a lot of kludgery and is just plain lived in.

While it was good of Lucas to include grungy dives, banged-up equipment, and old used spaceships, all that was more about what it means to be out on the fringes of society rather than what the future is like (well, except to say that the future still has those elements of the past and present).

The best example in film of a spaceship as a crummy, messy, beat-up environment is John Carpenter’s early movie Dark Star. Of course this is partly because their prop and set budget must have been about $500.

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roac 01.27.11 at 5:14 pm

bianca s @ 40:

I never read Kangaroo, but The Plumed Serpent takes the same stance: Something mystical about Mexico makes it natural and right for people living there to cut the hearts out of other people with obsidian knives.

I can’t read Lawrence because appalling ideas like this crop up regularly. Citing him in my earlier post wasn’t meant to imply approval; the argument was that both he and Tolkien, about as different as two writers can be, both sensed that the English aristocracy was played out, and that the Great War had a lot to do with it, and expressed the feeling in sexual terms (or as near as Tolkien ever got to writing about sex).

One has to admit that Lawrence was very perceptive where class was concerned.

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Ginger Yellow 01.27.11 at 5:43 pm

The best example in film of a spaceship as a crummy, messy, beat-up environment is John Carpenter’s early movie Dark Star. Of course this is partly because their prop and set budget must have been about $500.

Also one of the best exemplars of category 6, where the timeless metaphysical issue is how to cope with boredom.

.

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Skywalker5446 01.27.11 at 5:48 pm

I find it very intriguing that so many people attribute “libertarianism” to the rantings of small subsets of people who _call_ themselves libertarian but really aren’t (simple to find them, just watch Fox News). It shows people are largely VERY ignorant of what libertarianism really is and prefer to discount it by pointing to a few crazies (@sg, 46, I’m looking at you). Guess what? Liberals and conservatives and authoritarians all have crazies as well. Maybe try reading some definitions? Maybe talking to respected sources of libertarian ideals. Nah, that would require _thinking_ and questioning oneself, can’t have that.

On point, I think you’re mostly right about, as you call it, the “libertarian right” being attached to mid-century small producers, though I think you’re off to say this no longer exists. Overshadowed by the large mega-producers in most markets, yes, but not gone.

I also think that the more likely reason Heinlen has not made it to screen is that at the center of are an integral part of most of his stories are huge social taboos. The mainstream (almost by definition) would reject such elements at the box office.

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phosphorious 01.28.11 at 12:01 am

Maybe try reading some definitions?

Maybe try providing some definitions? It is standard procedure among libertarians these days to dismiss the crazies among them as “not real libertarians.”

It is less standard procedure to actually give an example of “real libertarianism.”

In any event, I don’t think I have ever read a definition of libertarianism that would include Milton Friedman and exclude Michele Bachmann. The crazies are a feature not a bug.

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Cargo 01.28.11 at 3:55 pm

Hey, nobody mentioned Tony Stark / Iron Man as an example of a pro-science, libertarian hero. He’s right out of Ayn Rand in his personal politics and he’ll whip up a particle accelerator in an afternoon in his basement. Stan Lee’s original concept was based on Howard Hughes.

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Stu 01.28.11 at 4:52 pm

How can you possibly say the Dune movie was great? The end especially goes completely against what is in the book. In the book Moadieb tries his hardest to avoid his Godhead while in the movie completely embraces it. The Syfi channels mini series at least paid some respect to the written version.

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dave_vader 01.28.11 at 5:11 pm

Star Wars is notable for being one of the first distant-future sci fi films that was not really a movie of ideas. Previous sci-fi movies, as others have noted, were highly abstract, taking place in gleaming starship or desolate wastelands, and often focused on abstract notions of the future. Lucas’s Star Wars starts on Tatoine, and challenges this cerebral conception with a grimy, post-industrial atmosphere that is very tangible. Some take the lack of large ideas in Star Wars as a ‘dumbing down’ of sci-fi, and perhaps that is really why Lind prefers Star Trek. But Star Wars was an important marker that presaged movies like ‘Blade Runner’, whose depiction of the future seems to resist the notion that science will utterly revolutionize our cities.

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Bruce Baugh 01.28.11 at 6:20 pm

Someday I want to write a Kafkaesque exposition about true, serious libertarianism existing where no libertarians are, every professed libertarian distorting the ideas because of their own statist, altruistic, collectivist failings, the idea shining in the void that cannot be seen with a light that is not light.

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Keith 01.28.11 at 7:41 pm

We should just rename the No True Scotsman Fallacy the No True Libertarian Fallacy and just be done with it. Is there another sociopolitical philosophy whose most fundamental attribute is that it’s impossible to be properly applied by even its most fervent adherents?

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Hogan 01.28.11 at 8:13 pm

bianca steele @ 40: It’s practically a trope, from Goethe (if not earlier) to E.M. Forster to Thomas Mann: people from repressed northern civilizations going to more primitive southern climes (usually Italy) and learning from the natives what bodies are for.

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chris 01.28.11 at 8:23 pm

#64: Is there another sociopolitical philosophy whose most fundamental attribute is that it’s impossible to be properly applied by even its most fervent adherents?

I’m pretty sure socialists and communists have tried to disclaim Stalin and Mao as either not sincerely trying to improve the lot of the working man, or doing it wrong. How much justice this criticism has, and whether or not socialism or communism ought to be tarred with the brush of either ruler’s deeds, is very much a question of interpretation, though.

Still, if you see, e.g., Stalin as wrapping dictatorship in a facade of socialism, then it’s not impossible that someone else could wrap a distasteful system of government (let’s say corporocratic cronyism) in a facade of libertarianism, in which case the charge that they are no true libertarian is well placed, and possibly one that could pry one’s hypothetical fellow libertarians away from being duped by the facade in question.

@65: which is exactly the reverse of the probably even older “innocent farm boy/girl goes to the city and learns, etc.” It’s interesting how decadence is always located somewhere else.

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Hogan 01.28.11 at 8:47 pm

@66: In the post-Romantic version it’s not always bad. It’s not even always decadence, more like regeneration, or a harmonious balancing of the Apollonian and the Dionysian or some damn thing.

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greysome 01.29.11 at 11:19 am

A little OT: Ursula K Leguin was the subject of the BBC Worldservice programme the Interview
on 28/01/2011. Podcast available at

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/interview till about 27/02/2011.
She is blogging too at
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Blog2010.html

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BlaiseP 01.29.11 at 4:24 pm

Sci-fi movies are recycled Westerns, Star Wars certainly was. The Western is in its turn a recycled Morality Play, grown from the older Biblical pageant the Mystery Plays, tropes of the Bible Stories.

I once had a writing teacher say all stories are fundamentally a retelling of Homer. Write a good character, put him in a situation, change something, watch him react, change it some more, he reacts again. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, we see the gods move the heroes like so many chess pieces. But such pieces!

Sci-fi’s great weakness is this: it simply cannot resist the urge to moralise. Utopias and dystopias, peopled by men and monsters, good and evil, wise and foolish, it’s all the same: the threadbare characters moving about on these operatic sets, saved and damned by deus ex machina, the weakest of all plot devices. Yes, Star Wars is a space opera, which is as apt a compliment as SW can be given: the set is good, the acting is bad, the screenwriting is worse. The Matrix betrays its gnostic Mystery Play ancestry, worse with each iteration.

The word Mystery in Mystery Play is a pun. Mysterium, a miracle. Misterium, a craft.

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Chris 01.29.11 at 7:45 pm

I’m kind of surprised it took 69 comments for a genre snob to show up; despite (or more precisely, because of) the fact that it would obviously be unwelcome, off-topic, and generally trollish to everyone else involved, I would have expected it to happen sooner.

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BlaiseP 01.29.11 at 7:58 pm

Point to one piece of modern sci-fi which isn’t at its heart a morality play. Troll I may be, but I do exact my toll.

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Substance McGravitas 01.29.11 at 9:05 pm

Transformers.

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BlaiseP 01.29.11 at 10:00 pm

Heh. Machina ex Deus. Oooh (wiggles fingers) the Creation Matrix.

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Bruce Baugh 01.29.11 at 10:37 pm

BlaiseP, how many non-sf pieces of popular entertainment can you point to that aren’t morality plays? In the words of Eldon Tyrell, “Let me see a negative before I give you a positive.”

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BlaiseP 01.29.11 at 10:59 pm

Popular? There’s a greasy little pig of an adjective. And in which genre? Recemt movies? Let’s try 127 Hours. Or The Black Swan. Or any of a dozen video games, all of which dispense with Morality and Big Issues entirely, favoring action and character.

“What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” That’s Henry James. While sci-fi poses many interesting questions, too often its authors wants to answer them all, in the form of a sermon. The best authors, including PK Dick and JG Ballard, leave those questions for us to answer.

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Substance McGravitas 01.29.11 at 11:10 pm

Heh. Machina ex Deus. Oooh (wiggles fingers) the Creation Matrix.

What are you talking about? Did you miss the explosions and Megan Fox bending over?

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BlaiseP 01.30.11 at 2:33 am

Missed ‘em all, Megan Fox’s buttocks and all. Having survived (and initiated) actual explosions of the ackshul fackshul variety, may I disabuse every reader of this post of every Yellow Explosion you will ever see in the Muveez.

Actual explosions are white, and instantaneous. They kill everyone within the blast radius. There are no exceptions. The Yellow Explosions are bags of kerosene.

As for robots, they’ll always be our friends, our servants. There will always be an off switch, on a nice hand-grippable control. The Mean Robots? There will always be a human being at the other end of the telemetry who will push the Smite Button. The homunculus, writ large.

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Jacob Hartog 01.30.11 at 2:50 am

I think it’s a mistake to boil Star Wars down to George Lucas. If you want to see what you get when you leave George Lucas in charge of everything, watch The Phantom Menace. Or better: don’t.

Instead, Star Wars as an actual film combines Lucas’s Joseph Campbell and Kurosawa-inspired fantasies with the work of many other artists. The result, from the Storm Troopers’ masks to the Millenium Falcon’s interior to John Williams’ score, expresses a lot about the America of its time (just as Wizard of Oz does, through the medium of the studio system of its own time). Part of 1977 America is a real fascination with science, and the design of the droids and the interior of the Falcon express that. At the same time, I think there’s a sort of Whole Earth Catalog-style distrust evident in the film, not of science per se but science as an expression of military, industrial, and social control rather than of distributed, local power and knowledge. Thus, the Death Star is huge, inscrutably complex, and an instrument of Armageddon (a much more immediate possibility in 1977 than today) while the Millenium Falcon is an instrument of good precisely because there are wires hanging out all over the place and Chewie has to fix everything himself. It is true that the fantasy aspects of Star Wars are explicitly anti-rational (“trust your instincts, Luke,”) but the conflict is not just between science and belief: Darth Vader certainly believes, too.

One interesting aspect of our current moment is that the most influential artifacts of science are not rockets or particle accelerators but things like the I-Phone: not huge, hugelt expensive government projects but tiny, relatively cheap objects of private property– not the Death Star but Dumbledore’s wand. More importantly for the role of science fiction, an I-phone is no longer something like a rocket or a bomb that experts, at least fully understand; instead, they are objects which literally no one in the world understands. The people who understand the touch screens do not understand the CPUs and do not understand the software. We are not in a technological but in a technomagical age, and I am not sure if traditiona science fiction has as much to say to us now.

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Substance McGravitas 01.30.11 at 5:13 am

I don’t know that people who shot cannons ever needed to know what the chemistry of black powder really involved, and they were wrong for a few centuries (moreover I’d be surprised if modern gunners understand what they use today). So what if nobody ever reads all the code that makes an iPhone go?

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Jacob Hartog 01.30.11 at 12:30 pm

I would say that the curiosity that animates much but not all science fiction entails a belief that the world can be understood, and that understanding the world makes a difference. Our technology is both more pervasive and more opaque than ever before, and I think this opacity, the fact that no one could possibly understand the things we use every moment of the day, has something to do with the diminished importance of science in our culture.

In Richard Feynmann’s memoir, he talks about taking apart and fixing radios for everybody in his neighborhood, as a kid– which was possible because the radios were built with big vacuum tubes you could actually see. Even if certainly not everybody at that time had the same curiosity or insight as Feynmann (that’s why they were asking him to fix their radios, after all), I think a technology that is more open to curiosity is one that is more likely to inspire both science fiction and societal engagement with science more generally.

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Substance McGravitas 01.30.11 at 4:08 pm

Tinkering with the tubes in your radio is fun, but there’s a limitation to what it can do. Learn to program for your iPhone and you can make a bunch of cool things happen. And you can still look up instructions for how to make an AM radio on the internet.

What’s the marker of the diminished importance of science?

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Just saying 01.31.11 at 6:03 am

Let’s try 127 Hours. Or The Black Swan

Well I didn’t see “The Black Swan”. Though I did see a flick called “Black Swan”, and there sure seemed to be some moralizing in it. And I’m not sure how you can avoid at least a little bit of thinking about choices and human nature in a movie where a dude has to cut off his own arm with a spork.

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zosima 01.31.11 at 10:32 am

Should have listed The Terminator & T2 under theme #2.

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