Has the Universe Gotten Too Big for Science Fiction?

District 9 is the much talked about new science fiction movie that was released just days ago.  But I have to ask:  Is District 9 science fiction? Since we get so few new science fiction movies every year why should I even suggest that one isn’t science fiction?  We’re always overwhelmed with comic book movies that are obviously too silly to be science fiction, and ignoring the franchise films, like Star Trek, we were gifted with what many fans would consider two uniquely classic-SF movies this summer:  Moon and District 9.  I enjoyed watching both, but unfortunately I don’t consider either to be science fiction, not by my picky old fart definition of science fiction.

But am I deluded, blowing smoke up my own ass, by worrying too much that science fiction has fallen asleep with alien pods in the room?  I know hordes of old SF fans in their 40s, 50s, and 60s that stopped reading SF after the 1980s, or even earlier, who are all wanking nostalgic for SF from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, living in a retro science fictional paradise.  This new fangled stuff might look like science fiction, it might walk like science fiction, but it doesn’t quack like science fiction.

District 9 uses outer space aliens as a metaphor for a story about immigration xenophobia and racism.  And even though District 9 opens with a magnificent flying saucer orbiting perfectly over Johannesburg, South Africa, with max-gnarly alien aliens, I still don’t consider it science fiction.  Why?  Real science fiction is about exploring the cutting edge of reality, and District 9 uses its aliens like other movies use angels or dragons to tell a fable.  More than that, District 9 models its action after video games rather than modern science fiction magazine stories – but does District 9 model the emerging post-modern SF magazine stories?

Now, I’m not saying that District 9 isn’t a very creative film, I’m just saying it’s not science fiction.  It uses science fiction as a metaphor for human xenophobia, rather than being speculative fiction about first contact with a non-human intelligence.  Sure it’s a fun, gripping movie, with a fascinating storyline and engaging characters, told with stomach churning hand-held camera anxiety.  District 9 is gritty and realistic about human nature, but is totally unscientific, choosing to stay well within the cliché tropes of SF, which are getting moldy-oldie even for me.  Even though the aliens look very different from us, they act just like us, especially at our worse, which I believe was the intention of the film’s storytellers.  District 9 is an allegory about apartheid, and all other political histories where one group of human beings treat another group of human beings with zero empathy.

Then again, am I wrong?  I want to define science fiction by the standards I use in my review of “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.”  I don’t think I’m the only one sniffing out changes in SF.  Read Jason Sanford’s “The noticing of SciFi Strange,” and his story “The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain.”

Then read the gorgeous “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang, which just won the 2009 Hugo Award for short story.  These are cutting edge stories marketed as science fiction, but are they really science fiction?  I’d call them fantasy, but they aren’t even fantasy like Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, J. K. Rowling or Lewis Carroll.

We’re living in a post-modern science fiction world where science fiction has little relationship to science, or reality.  In our age of tremendous science and technology, science fiction has decided to become fantasy.  Why is this?

An old friend Jim called me this weekend to tell me that he and his wife were watching The Universe, a TV series about astronomy and Stacy decided the universe was too big for her mind to handle, which Jim thought was hilarious.  Reality is big, and the old purpose of science fiction used to be producing sense of wonder about the vastness of space and time.  Has the universe gotten to big for science fiction?

And, has the universe gotten too big for our cozy little minds?  Has science fiction pulled back from the event horizon of reality, fearful of facing the black hole of science fact?  As much as I want science fiction to be about science, the story from The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction edited by Allan Kaster, that had the greatest emotional impact on me was “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss,” by Kij Johnson from Asimov’s Science Fiction. 

26 Monkeys is a purely fantasy tale that is a post-modern science fiction story where the universe is too big, and the only way to comprehend it is with allegory.  The story is scientifically fatalistic, in that the characters give up on trying to understand the sense of wonder in their lives. 

This is even more explicitly stated in “The Ray Gun: A Love Story,” by James Alan Gardner, another favorite from the above collection.  Read this story, but substitute the concept “science fiction” whenever you hear “ray-gun” while reading this story.  This story feels like meta-fiction about giving up science fiction, at least the old modern kind.

And what about Moon, the SF film about where humans refuse to go.  When did mankind decide the final frontier was not for them?

Science fiction has always been about the future, it always embraced modernism, showing absolute faith in science with the relentless belief that we will eventually comprehend reality.  Ivy League intellectuals have always considered the SF genre to be a literature for dreamy adolescents, so maybe it’s just taken science fiction a bit longer than the rest of the literary world to grow up and face the post-modern world of uncertainty.

JWH – 8/18/9


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