I’ve heard it said that at its heart, science fiction is really just an adventure story.
While this may be true, I don’t believe “adventure” is the reason I enjoy the genre.
Renowned sci-fi and fantasy critic Don D’Ammassa once defined an adventure story as a series of events that happens outside of the protagonist’s everyday life. But by far, my favorite part of any science fiction tale -- or fantasy, let’s lump fantasy in here too, same rules apply -- is watching the author construct the inner workings of a protagonist’s everyday life. The structure, the details, the composition. Swords and horses and tractor beams are all well and good, but I find it far more interesting to contemplate a character simply existing in their own mundane little world, subject to an entirely different set of rules than the ones that govern my own.
What would life be like in zero gravity? What would life be like for an alien, a robot, a vampire? What would life be like if this form of magic was real, or that form? How would one meet their needs, and how would their needs differ from my own, anyway? These questions intrigue me, and sci-fi and fantasy tales are a sandbox for my mind in which lots of intricate little experiments can be run. The writer creates the participants and environment, and the reader observes the outcome and analyzes the results. I can watch beings of all sorts behave under varying conditions -- different physics, different politics, different moralities, different technologies -- and envision what that might be like if I were living right alongside them.
I generally find the adventure in science fiction and fantasy stories to be less a backbone and more of a hot dog bun -- a not-terribly interesting, yet necessary vessel that carries the meat to my mouth so I can chew it up and savor it, consume it and make it part of myself.
The adventure itself is rarely that interesting to me. I’m way more interested in the logistics, the structure, the whys and hows and wherefores. The adventure is just a delivery system for the nitty-gritties.
While I can find plenty of books to satisfy this mechanical curiosity of mine, it’s rare in movies and tv. It’s far more common to encounter preachy parables -- presenting not some unique ecosystem for me to wrap my head around, but a universe where the rules are roughly analogous to our own and the characters are meant to represent various individuals or groups that exist here in the real world. The story, while typically action-packed, tends to bore me, simply bringing me the same allegorical hot dog I’ve eaten a thousand times before. These stories are clearly intended to teach me some very important lesson about my own world, which I do not need and rarely appreciate (maybe if it wasn’t so often the same lesson again and again, I might feel differently).
I know this world already. I’m well versed in etiquette, and protocol. I would prefer to consider a different world, to discover a new and fantastic vista to lay my eyes upon, and I assure any authors of preachy sci-fi and fantasy that I do not want to hear proselytizing about ANY world.
Perhaps the best example of what I’m looking for in my sci-fi is Battlestar Galactica -- the rebooted 2004 edition, that is, not the 70’s version. Battlestar Galactica starts off as a very solid cautionary tale, a parable about our own world. I don’t know if it’s a light touch, or skill, but thankfully the moralizing on BSG is mostly tolerable and rarely irritates me. Yet it’s when the writers dispense with the “OMGosh their world is just like our own, we better be careful lest this happen to us” business, that the show is at its best.
I’m sure most people have either watched it or taken a deliberate pass on Battlestar Galactica by now, but spoiler alert anyway -- BSG relays the story of a human culture that builds cyborg servants called Cylons that eventually get so smart they decide to rise up and destroy their creators. Cylons look exactly like humans and they are capable of mimicking human behavior very closely. Some of them seem to want to be humans, while others in their ranks despise humanity -- perhaps understandably. A good show becomes great when we start to learn more about the Cylons -- their culture, their politics, their sense of ethics and justice, their religion, their very consciousness itself.
There are only twelve versions of Cylon androids. Most versions have many copies, yet every copy seems to have its own unique personality. Imagine, as I did, a culture made up of identical people that come in 7 main types (5 of the Cylons we meet later on are unique and have a different origin) but millions of each of them, and of those millions, they’re all different, even though many of them appear identical. And they can’t die, exactly; at least not easily. Their bodies can die, but when an individual Cylon dies within range of a facility called a “Resurrection Hub” their memories are preserved and uploaded…or is it downloaded?…into a new body and they carry on. In essence, Cylons are immortal, as long as they stay in range of one of these Hubs.
How would that affect a culture? A people? What would it be like to be one of millions of identical twins coexisting alongside millions of other identical twins? And never to die -- for one’s consciousness to run on forever, body to body, to carry the lessons of one life with you into the next? It’s interesting stuff. Far more interesting than the allegorical elements of BSG, at least to me. I’m not really doing the plot justice here, but you may find that if you watch the show, you’ll find yourself wondering far more about what a Cylon’s existence might be like and how they might see the world differently because of it, than about prophecies and spaceships and finding Earth.
The most unfortunate thing about the tendency to use sci-fi and fantasy worlds as a platform to preach about our own is that honestly, I was left wrangling with just as many, if not more, philosophical questions from the Cylon storyline as from the parts of BSG that were clearly meant to impart a Very Important Message For All Humanity. Nature vs. nurture creating different people from an identical genetic template. The responsibilities, if any, that we carry for the actions or inaction of others who share our same genetic “type”. How we are motivated by the drive to hand down our life experiences to future generations, and do we owe any debts to those generations who came before us, who created us, as it were? Even if they didn’t run the world the way we would? Even if they mistreated us?
Like I said, it’s interesting stuff. These questions are important now, here, in our world, and were raised by the writers of Battlestar Galactica without resorting to a pedantic, heavy-handed plot where various stand ins were used to mirror the politics of our modern world.
It’s just better that way. Harder, both for the writers and for the viewer, but better. We’ve shied away from asking hard, but necessary questions through art in favor of producing minor variations on the same theme and I think it’s starting to show. We seem to be falling into our same old bad human habits of seeing the world as us-es and thems and this is in spite of having watched 10 zillion tv shows with the message Xenophobia bad, tolerance good.
Or maybe even because of it. Maybe we’ve gotten so damn convinced we’ve done the heavy lifting that we forgot to actually do any of it.
I’m just not convinced that what the world needs is another 10 zillion spaceship-or-wizard fables featuring precisely the same moral again and again, without nuance, without deeper investigation into the myriad complexities of it all, without thoughtful consideration of the reasons why it is that people continue to fall into the trap of xenophobia. We have got to start asking ourselves and each other harder questions, even if we don’t really like the answers. Even if it’s way less fun than explosions and light sabers.
Science fiction and fantasy, at their core, are safe spaces to ask hard questions.
If you also like this sort of thing, I have a few recommendations for you.
I recently watched a show that raises some intriguing questions about the very nature of human existence -- The Innocents. If you saw the preview for The Innocents on Netflix and rejected it because it looked like a supernatural teen drama, give it another look. While the story does start off centered on star-crossed teen lovers, it quickly spins out into more than that as it’s revealed that the Juliet end of our Romeo and Juliet, is a very special and unique type of human.
BE WARNED -- this trailer gives pretty much everything about the whole show away!!!
June is a shapeshifter and can literally become another person. As in, take them over completely. Become them, body and soul. Whoever June shifts into falls into a coma until she returns to herself again. If she decides to, that is. If she can. It’s a power that could be used for good or ill even if it was easy to control -- and it isn’t. Things are ok till she runs away from home with a boy from school and falls into the hands of some people who may or may not have her best interests at heart.
The Innocents pulls no punches. Although it’s about children, this is not a child’s show; love doesn’t conquer all and the power of friendship is revealed to be pretty worthless in the end. Very intriguing questions are raised about consent, self-image, body integrity, and the ethics of taking things that belong to others for the sake of your own survival. And no real answers are given.
If your tastes run more towards the cartoonish, I suggest a lovely, peculiar little anime called Violet Evergarden. I’m not entirely sure what type of being Violet Evergarden was to start with -- a child, perhaps, but a strange child, completely out of touch with her own emotions. She is trained to become some sort of supersoldier in a war between fictional nations. Then the war ends. What does a person do when the only thing they’ve known is violence and serving a terrible master, and now they’re expected to live in a world of peace and manage their own life when they’ve literally never done that before?
Well, one becomes an Auto Memories Doll of course. In this odd world in which Violet Evergarden dwells, Auto Memory Dolls are women who write letters for people, and in the course of writing the letter, Dolls uncover the real emotion behind the message the person wanted to convey. This is rather an odd career choice for someone like Violet, who really doesn’t understand human emotion to begin with, but over the course of time her work allows her to better understand the feelings of others and to even unravel her own life experiences. Along the way the viewer finds themselves thinking about the nature of emotion and why we have such difficulty understanding not only the feelings of others, but also our own. It sounds trite, but it’s entirely unique, and quite beautiful. Additionally, Violet Evergarden is one of the rare programs I’ve seen recently where a person who is scarred and damaged actively works to put their life back together again by helping others (non-violently) rather than self-destructing or becoming a (still violent) crime-fighting superhero. Violet Evergarden carries a very positive and uplifting message and felt very fresh to me.
If you think that all sounds pretty heavy, you’re right. One Punch Man, on the other hand, is a lot more lighthearted and fun. It’s a show about superheroes on the surface, but it’s really about bureaucracy and boredom and never getting any recognition for the amazing things you do. Saitama -- One Punch Man -- is a superhero so powerful he can defeat any enemy with a single punch, but few believe this is true because he’s not a shameless self-promoter and he has trouble playing by the rules. And I don’t mean in the tropey “I don’t follow society’s rules, grrrr” way, but in a realistic way. He’s like that guy everyone knows -- amazingly talented but can never get himself together long enough for anyone in authority to realize it.
Saitama lives in a world governed in part by a superhero bureaucracy called the Hero Association that functions about as well as any other bureaucracy. One Punch Man doesn’t exactly raise probing questions about the meaning of human existence, but I did find myself thinking “Wow, if superheroes were real, that is EXACTLY the type of dysfunctional institutional structure that would surely exist around them.” And as comedian Bill Burr has eloquently pointed out, there’s also a nice subtext about the dehumanizing nature of modern cubicle society, and many of the villains are pretty much everyday a-holes given mutant form. It’s a fun show and laugh out loud funny in addition to the underlying messages.
If you want something even sillier than One Punch Man, I give you The Almighty Johnsons.
The Almighty Johnsons is a goofy, comedic-soap-opera-ish show from New Zealand that watches like a college student’s film project. Super low budget, lousy writing (at least at the start -- it gets better as it goes along), weird pacing, sudden shifts in tone -- it’s kinda like being home sick from school and watching an episode of General Hospital, if General Hospital featured unexpected outbursts of soft core porn and copious amounts of coke-snorting. But even though it’s not what I would call a good show, it’s entertaining enough and unpredictable bordering on batsh--; I never knew what was going to happen next and I really like that, especially for a bingewatch. Beyond its more obvious merits, TAJ makes you really stop to consider the nature of life, if you lower your inhibitions enough to let it.
The Johnsons are a family of Norse gods temporarily stuck dwelling in the bodies of human beings. They live normally till they turn 21, then they start getting some relatively useless powers and experiencing god-like whims for vengeance and hedonism. There’s a lot of dumb backstory and convoluted interpersonal drama, but the intriguing issues raised by The Almighty Johnsons center around how much are any of us really in charge of our own destiny and how much has been at least partially predetermined by the circumstances that we’re born into, and yes…political incorrectness warning…our very genome itself. Even though most of us are not housing Nordic gods, we all carry an inheritance from our ancestors, whether it’s culturally ingrained or biologically inborn, and we all must learn to either make our peace with it or fight it to the death. Anyone who’s ever waged war between their noble ideals and their baser instincts, anyone who’s ever found themselves reenacting the scripts of their parents or grandparents without really even understanding why, may relate to the struggles of the Johnson brothers, trying to navigate between their human ideals and their divine urges.
What say you, dear readers? Do you prefer plot over worldbuilding? Adventure over analysis? Smiting over subtext? Are you ok with a good moralistic yarn now and then? Or do you prefer to let authors write and leave the preaching to the Biblethumpers who walk among us?
And most important, do you have any other suggestions?