What Motivates Science Fiction Fantasies?

Awhile back I wrote “What is Your Science Fiction Fantasy?” and I had a couple long and well thought out replies from my blogger friend Carl V of Stainless Steel Droppings that make me want to return to this subject.  I’ve been a life-long science fiction fan, and my adolescence was filled with fantasies of two types.  Like most guys that age, the majority of my waking thoughts back then were about sex, but between the constants T&A flicks playing in my brain I’d project fantasies about rockets and space travel.  I loved science fiction books, movies, and television shows.  I grew up thinking when I got older I’d have sex with lots of women and I’d be an astronaut. 

As you might have guessed, things didn’t work out quite like I planned.  We live in at least three worlds.  The first is the unseen world of microbiology and its programming.  The second is the actual reality where our bodies dwell.  And third is the fantasy world of our minds where we constantly reshape reality.  Most of the fantasies worlds we build are unconsciously inspired by the unseen biological world that lives inside us.  We seldom examine its motivations.

I know why I had the teenage sex fantasies and where they came from.  At the cellular level I am programmed to reproduce and the reptilian and mammalian parts of my brain did everything they could to keep me focused on the target of passing on my DNA.  Every story about boy meets girl is our cells instructing us on how to make babies.

It’s rather hilarious, don’t you think, that the porn industry makes its billions by triggering the baby making response in males?  Yeah brothers, the next time you have your hand on the joystick and you’re self-hypnotizing your mind with delicious sexual desires by drooling over images of female body parts just remember what 13.75 billion years of evolution is trying to trick you into doing.

Now ladies, don’t think y’alls lot in life is any more dignified.  Guys may be slobbering monkeys playing with themselves, but women are the ones painting their faces, contorting their bodies to protrude in suggestive monkey appealing ways while acting like robotic slaves to appearance and competitive fashion.  Not only that, but Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice can turn you into a swooning puddle of quivering romance.  Sure in your eyes Colin is Mr. Right, but go reread the paragraph above and remember what Mr. Firth sees in his eyes.  

Now you might not believe what I’m saying, but you can at least see the possible connection between the plots of most novels and biology.  So where the hell did all those spaceship fantasies come from?  Is there some deep urge to explore that exists in our genetic structure?  Maybe my lower brain functions wanted me to be an astronaut after my neo-cortex told them that fly-boys got all the chicks.  Porn and romance books make sense but what’s the logic of science fiction?

In my youth I justified my interest in trashy science fiction books by telling adults I was preparing for the future.  As I got older I worried I was just reading SF to avoid growing up.  When it was obvious my Heinlein training wasn’t going to pay off I felt that college years were meant for having fun before I was sentenced to the 9 to 5.  Then I told myself that all those silly outer-space dreams were just as realistic as all those sex dreams were turning out to be.  I wasn’t making babies or riding in rockets.

I ended up believing that fiction and fantasy was just entertaining diversions for when I had free moments from living and working.  I concluded that art, fiction, stories, fantasies, were meaningless expressions of creativity.

Now that I’m older, I’m re-evaluating that.  Could it be that our sense of wonder dreams are telling us something?  Carl doesn’t like how I keep referring to entertainment as escapism:

Now I’m not naive enough to ignore the fact that there is some degree of escapism in watching films and reading. I don’t believe there is any way to ever get totally away from that. But I think there is a fine line between escapism and entertainment and I firmly believe that if you read something and it stays with you and you are thinking about it and mulling it over and it somehow inspires you, lifts your mood, etc. then it is making a positive contribution to your life. ‘Escapism’ as a term seems to bring up only images of negative stuff.

I tend to use escapism as a synonym for entertainment, so that’s getting me into trouble.  I do this because I see entertainment as a vacation from work.  But what if our entertainment desires represent a positive drive like sex?  Out of all the zillions of species on planet Earth we’re the only ones with these Buck Rogers dreams.  Sure, we could tie them to biology and say they are just our territorial genes on steroids.  Is the human impulse to build skyscrapers really that different from ants building mounds?  There seems to be no natural analog for the SF drive.

Carl’s science fiction fantasy is to be a hero like Hans Solo:

Also I love the whole hero thing. We all want to be heroes, as husbands, fathers, friends. I’m attracted to Han Solo because he represents what I think so many guys are and want to be…we are by nature somewhat independent and yet at heart we crave a few good, close, intimate friends and the love of a good woman who is our equal, not a damsel in distress. I look at my own personal life and I believe I have that. My wife is every bit the person I see in so many of the romantic movie and book roles I love.

This goes a long way to explain why entertainment fantasies are positive driving forces in our lives.  My formative SF fantasies came from the Robert A. Heinlein’s young adult novels from the 1950s.  Instead of wanting to be a Joseph Campbell hero like Carl, those books made me want to be an explorer or pioneer, and my fantasy was to grow up and join a team that colonized Mars.  And long after it was obvious I was never going to live my fantasy I’ve wanted the same fantasy for the human race by supporting the space program.

The word “escapism” does seem negative, and in some contexts so does the word “fantasy.”  We come home from a hard day at the rat race and read John Scalzi’s latest or put on a DVD of Aliens, or play Halo on the Xbox, and tune out this world.  Is that a negative or a positive?  We could be doing something more constructive – I’m sure our wives think so.  Is the act of communing with our science fiction selves telling us something?

Most fiction involves stories about this world with slight variations.  In fact, most stories are a variation of boy meets girl which is only an elaboration of the plain old sex fantasy.  Other movies, like action pics are expressions of alpha male fantasies.  Chick flicks show the inner motivations of females.  Our entertainment reflects our biological programming.  Again, I’m back asking where do these science fiction fantasies fit into biology?

Is this SF drive greater than our biology?  Think about the big bang.  It was a big explosion of energy that shoots out in all directions.  After that for reasons hard to understand this energy reorganizes itself into matter that forms stars and planets.  Visualize blowing up a building and then watching as the rubble reassembles into something new.  That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it.

After the planets were formed by bits of rock clumping together we eventually get biology.  Talk about an infinite army of monkeys typing away and to produce the works of Shakespeare.  Is it any wonder that some religious people came up with the idea of intelligent design?  Cosmologists are now explaining this odd drive to complexity by saying we live in a multiverse – an infinity of universes and we just happen to live in a universe that has accidentally acquired this organizing drive.  They imagine most universes with big bangs that produce an entropy of particle haze.

Life represents replicating organisms.  What is the purpose of all this reproduction?  Humans have developed a rather peculiar side-effect:  self-awareness.  I think science fiction is aptly named.  As science has expanded our awareness of the universe, science fiction has programmed us with motivation to explore it.

If you look at porn and forget why it excites you then you are in animal mode.  If you watch Pride and Prejudice and forget why its pushing your buttons you are sleep walking.  If the latest science fiction novel electrifies your sense of wonder and you don’t under stand why, you’re a robot without AI.

I return to Heinlein over and over again, and Carl knows the foundation of his psychic world is Star Wars, but do we know why this art we admire so much is pushing our buttons?  Sex is the most powerful motivating force for humans behind survival, but we forget how it influences our art and culture.  Has the academic world every psychoanalyzed the motivating power of science fiction?  I do not have any answers.  I am just now forming the question.


5 thoughts on “What Motivates Science Fiction Fantasies?”

  1. I think the question of why we are the only species that has sci-fi fantasies is because we may be the only species that can fantasize about things that do not yet exist.

    Sexual fantasies in the realm of porn are about possibilities, but exist in reality. Not reality in the sense that they are likely or probable, but that they are possible.

    Science fiction and fantasy dreams go into another realm – that of belief rather than reality. In this universe of dreaming, everything and anything is possible. The chains of reality are completely cast aside. And becasue we are free from those bonds, we can place ourselves into any character, and aspire to be as cool, as macho, as virtuous as they are. Or, in the alternative, to revel in the mean, nasty, devious characters that act out what we would never imagine.

    Science fiction and fantasy stories allow is to go somewhere we’ll never go, be someone we’ll never be., and that is the draw.

  2. Leo, are you saying the appeal of science fiction is because it offers unlimited fuel for our fantasies? But is the act of fantasizing the goal or the planning of our desires? I assumed I had all those sex fantasies because I wanted to get laid in the reality world. I’m asking do we have all those science fiction fantasies because we want to build space ships, robots, time machines, etc.

    I guess there is a third approach. Some guys do go out and have more sexual encounters than fantasies. And some guys go out and work for NASA. And those are the modern alpha males. And all us other guys just live with out fantasies. I don’t like that approach, but it might be true.

    I want to think that fantasy is a tool. It’s our holodeck where we simulate reality because we’re preparing to change our real lives. Just because we don’t succeed doesn’t mean we didn’t intend to change our lives if the opportunity came up.

    If you like to fantasize about winning $200 million in the lottery is it because you just like the fantasy, or you’d really like to spend $200 million and the fantasies you have are preparing you even if the odds are against winning. It’s a subtle distinction.

    Maybe fantasies keep us constantly prepared for change and that’s why we’re a species that adapts so well and so often.


  3. Thanks for that link – that book sounds fascinating. And the Amazon site refers to a few more covering the same topic, which is right up my alley. I’ll check my library today and I’ll go look for reviews online now.


    I found this review in the NY Times that’s an excellent summation of the book.

  4. And an interesting question it is too. It is especially interesting because my observation is that you and I would approach the answers from wholly different perspectives. I firmly believe in the divine and believe that there is a spiritual component to man. As such I think that all the factors you mention are in existence in causing us to be the kind of people we are and have the yearnings that we do, but I also add to that my belief that there is a spiritual aspect to our being that calls out for something more.

    I realize that scientists, etc. can attempt to explain away the spiritual by pointing out all the biochemical reasons that we fall in love, desire sex, etc. and I do not deny those things, but I have always maintained that it takes as much faith (if not more) to believe that this is the be all, end all of why these things exist as it does to believe in something greater than one’s self. Intellectually and spiritually I think there is something present that makes us different than the rest of the life that populates our planet.

    I also believe culture, the positive reinforcement that certain things had on us as we grew up, etc. also plays into why we have the kind of fantasies, the kind of yearnings, etc. that we both share with others but that also make us unique beings.

    I also think those things have a heavy influence over our individual ideas about entertainment and/or escapism. I am really not any different than you. Before I entered the blogging world I used the term escapism in place of entertainment as well…both terms have a positive connotation for me personally but I noticed once I started blogging that many people reacted the way my parents do to the idea of entertainment in that they don’t always see…or at least acknowledge…the value of it.

    It may or may not be accurate, but I see myself as being in a sort of in-between place generationally. My parents are certainly part of that baby-boomer, work hard and you’ll get ahead, generation and I certainly have some of that in me. Today’s generation ‘seems’ to be much more entertainment, I-need-a-distraction oriented. Now both of those are generalizations, but I feel like I fall in the middle. I like to think I believe the work hard and you’ll get ahead attitude and I think my work ethics speak more to my parent’s generation, but I also know the reality of today’s marketplace and people don’t have the job loyalty that they used to…and companies don’t have that kind of loyalty to employees. I also don’t fall in with the feeling that I need to be constantly entertained. I guess I just see a huge value in entertainment/escapism because, at least from a foundational perspective, I see that books and art have strongly influenced the authors and artists I admire today. I also consider myself a bit of a creative person and would like to ally myself with those folks (eventhough I am lazy/scared and don’t do much with my talents) and so I tend to get a bit defensive when anyone seems to want to take reading or art and brush them aside as unworthy endeavors.

    As for science fiction, I just think it is a very unique genre because in the end it takes what is great about other forms of fiction and adds to it a real element: that space does exist and that there are wonderful mysteries to behold out there.

    I am frustrated as well that I cannot jump in a rocketship and blast off to the stars, but that doesn’t inhibit my ability to dream of it and experience it in my imagination through reading, film, art, etc. One may be a poor substitute for the other, but I have had some damn good experiences with books, films, and art in my time that certainly don’t feel like sloppy seconds, if you get my meaning.

    I’m sure I’ve gotten waaaay off topic here (not unusual for me). I certainly don’t know what causes us…at least some of us…to go all giddy with excitement about adventures in outer space and/or the worlds imagined in fantasy. I just don’t know. What I do know is that when I read or watch something like Lord of the Rings I feel a strong emotional attachment to a past that may only exist in the tenuous fictional connections Tolkien made with real folklore and mythology from the past. When I read science fiction I feel the rush of exploration and can toy around intellectually and emotionally with the ‘what if?’ idea. I do know that both kinds of emotional connection make me a better person, at least in my own eyes, because they make my life richer, give me a deeper appreciation for the beauty that is around me and for the talents of others, and make me want to share those experiences with others.

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