Saturday, April 07, 2007

What Is Authentic Science Fiction in Literature and the Cinema?

6 April 2007

This topic is a bit off the beaten track with respect to my usual blog entries. However, the topic is in fact closer to my heart than I usually disclose.

I will grant you that I have limited time to read the new science fiction literature or even to follow many of the new movies, though I more often have 2 hours to spare for a DVD than 10-20 hours to read a novel.

Here is my complaint. Very little of what is being released in the name of science fiction is in fact science fiction at all. So-called science fiction movies tend to be suspense, action, adventure or even horror films in science fiction disguise. You don't need me to name them for you – the titles abound in the so-called science fiction sections of the neighbourhood and online video stores.

Similarly, science fiction literature rarely has much to teach us about science these days. And this, in my view, is the intent of what I call true science fiction – that is, to explore the possible future places where science might take us, given both what we know – and what we know that we do not know – about the vast and mysterious, multi-dimensional universe that we inhabit.

I will accept the burden of proof for demonstrating what true science fiction is by proffering examples for your consideration.

In the area of science fiction as literature, I present the body of work of
Robert Heinlein as perhaps the purest science fiction writing of which I am aware. While Heinlein had a number of peers whose work was similar in many respects, for example, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and somewhat later, Frederick Pohl and Larry Niven (Doris Lessing is another category herself), I believe Heinlein extended the genre to the furthest reaches of its potential during his era.

What Heinlein was able to do, that perhaps no other writer has done so well, was to propel the reader into a conceivable future world that has been shaped by the imagined evolution of one or more scientific principles, and then create sympathetic characters with believable dilemmas to inhabit this imagined world.

In my view, Heinlein's consistently best-conceived works were in fact his
juvenile novels, commissioned in large part by the Boy Scouts in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Such titles as Space Cadet, Red Planet, Farmer in the Sky, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, Citizen of the Galaxy and Tunnel in the Sky painted imagined futures in vivid and challenging detail for young readers whose intelligence Heinlein consistently respected (and never underestimated).

Heinlein was not by any means rigid in restricting himself to the known realms of science. He had no difficulty imagining faster than light space travel (managed with slide rules, as computers of any power had not yet been conceived), time travel, space warps and in some cases telepathy. Virtually every planet was inhabited, and usually with creatures of intelligence equal to or greater than our own. So giant leaps of the imagination beyond known science were well within Heinlein's comfort zone.

However, Heinlein never neglected the scientific aspects of the technologies he imagined, and his work rarely contradicted what was known scientifically at his time – this allowed him to imagine Venus as a steamy tropical jungle populated by a multicultural human society – as well as by alien natives – rather than what we know it to be today, a burning oven surrounded by a caustic sulphuric acid atmosphere.

Given that Heinlein was (in my view) the master of authentic recent science fiction, it is telling, and disappointing, that so little of his work, and none of his best work, has ever been translated to the cinema. Two minor novels – The Puppet Masters and the controversial Starship Troopers – have been translated into mediocre movies, both of which hint at, but fail to capture, Heinlein's much wider-ranging vision.

Until Heinlein's better works have been translated to the cinema – and I fear this is now unlikely half a century later – I shall remain somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for science fiction cinema.

I do not by any means claim to have kept up with the 50 years of science fiction literature beyond Heinlein. Speaking on a personal basis, I have read only two contemporary science fiction authors whom I regard as writing in Heinlein's league, and these are
William Gibson, whose cyberpunk stories attempt the same task as Heinlein (creating an imaginable science-based future), though his work is centred around much more self-preoccupied (and therefore less sympathetic) characters, and Jonathan Lethem, whose occasional science fiction works in my view fully measure up to Heinlein's efforts, particularly his novel Girl in Landscape.

Interestingly, Gibson has also seen two of his works translated to the screen, one of which I am familiar with. Unfortunately, that is the science fiction “B” movie, Johnny Mnemonic. This movie is based on one of his very minor stories, and fails by virtually any measure in capturing Gibson's vision of a future society whose inhabitants move – at times imperceptibly – between a familiar but twisted natural world and a seductive and mysterious virtual cybernetic world.

Are there, then, true science fiction movies being made today?

The gratifying answer is yes – some.

Once again, there have been a number of credible efforts in the direction of creating an authentic science fiction cinema, though the genre as a whole is so regularly disappointing as to leave the true science enthusiast reflexively anticipating multiple compromises before ever entering the theatre or pressing the play button on the DVD player.

Interestingly, a number of the better efforts in science fiction film date back to its earliest days in the 1950s, though few of the best science fiction films have ever experienced a wide viewership.

As I am not an expert, I'm certain I will unintentionally pass over many of the better science fiction films, and I apologize for this in advance. I will attempt to name some of the obvious (and perhaps not so obvious) examples of better science fiction in the cinema.

One of the early classics that still stands out is Forbidden Planet, the story of Shakespeare's The Tempest re-made as science fiction, and built around a somewhat spurious but conceivable Freudian theme – which does in fact require both thought and exercise of imagination on the part of the viewer.

Some other titles which explore authentic science fiction themes, almost always in somewhat flawed ways, include such original efforts as This Island Earth (I have not viewed this one in many years), The Man Who Fell to Earth (whose amoral protagonist challenges us to imagine alien ways of thinking that are not so unlike our own), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (in which science fiction serves primarily as a contrasting and playful backdrop in service of grim historical fiction), and some low budget specials from out of the past, including the Original George Pal version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Henry Levin’s 1959 Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

There are a couple of films I feel I should mention that I have not so far seen, but which have come well recommended. These include The Brother from Another Planet and Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos).

In another category, which I might call the time-travel morality story, there is Ken Grimwood’s eminently readable popular novel, Replay, and on a very similar theme, the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. Neither is primarily a work of science fiction by any means, but they are worthy of our interest and attention.

Several more recent films have done some credit to the science fiction genre. I am not including the original Star Wars trilogy, which, though well done, falls more under the rubric of science fantasy, nor A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is more a social commentary (and comedy) using science fiction as a vehicle to comment on the human condition (much like Kurt Vonnegut’s series of science fiction novels).

The majority of authentic science fiction films have failed at the box office, and many of these are deeply flawed, despite their at least partial fidelity to science fiction’s core purpose, which again is to invite us to imagine a world changed by the progression of scientific knowledge and technology in areas which are presently either only partially known or unknown.

A number of action/thriller/horror/adventure crossovers have at least brushed past the great ideas of science fiction, and here I include the Alien series, the original Jurassic Park (and perhaps some other Crichton adaptations), The Matrix series (primarily the original episode), the Back to the Future series, several of the Schwarzenegger films, and perhaps also Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, Outbreak, Dark City, Aeon Flux and The Astronaut’s Wife (there are many others which could be listed here), In all cases, however, science fiction is secondary to the purpose of these films.

Some more recent, passable, and in some cases commendable, science fiction films (and I am including some box office flops and bankruptcy-engendering failures as well as more popular efforts), include Contact (one of the best true science fiction films of all time), 2001: A Space Odyssey (another classic), Mission to Mars (a true science fiction story), Outland (High Noon in outer space, though with a somewhat devolved action-oriented conclusion), The Chronicles of Riddick (Pitch Black, the first in the series, is a true science fiction film, despite its flawed fundamental science), The Thirteenth Floor (in my view, the most successful virtual reality film so far crafted), the delightful Riverworld pilot (which sadly never went on to production), A Sound of Thunder (true science fiction based on a Bradbury story, but a box office disaster that was released with the special effects tragically incomplete), and quite recently, and truly a magical and classic science fiction story, The Last Mimsy – which on my recommendation is not to be missed – in theatres today.

Having written this, I am in fact now feeling more hopeful, as I can look back and see that a veritable garden of credible written and filmed science fiction, though in many cases highly compromised, has somehow managed to blossom in the cracks of the pavement of our concrete-thinking world, despite the seemingly anti-scientific mindset of media decision-makers and the general public whose tastes they measure, target and ultimately serve.

We are a long way from the utopian world I envision, in which the public at large might be so intrigued by the mysteries of science that their minds are recurringly stimulated to imagine how our lives might be changed by its further evolution, thereby creating a rich science fiction literature and an imagination-stretching library of science fiction cinema titles.

Be that as it may, something has in fact been accomplished in the cultural domain of science fiction literature and cinema, and what has already been created may yet aid us in exploring further where science could take us over the upcoming century and millennium.

If history is any guide at all, then it is a virtual certainty that the places to which science ultimately takes us will extend far beyond our present imaginings. This knowledge makes me wish only that I could imagine more than I am presently capable of imagining – and be aided in doing so by further developments in science fiction literature and cinema.

Perhaps the advancements I hope for will emerge as the uprising of the future brings with it yet more unanticipated, often destabilizing and yet still promising developments. The inherent nature of the mysteriously and surprisingly unfolding future itself could therefore augur well – if perhaps unexpectedly – for a renewal and blossoming of the science fiction genre in our third millennium.


  1. Hey, Lawrence. I agree there are very few "pure" science fiction films available today, although there are a great many mixed-genre films, many of which you mentioned. I don't think that pure genre films are neccessarily the most practical of ideas, however, in that they appeak to a very narrow audience. Mixed genre allow for a science fiction writer to reach out to those who would not ordinarily delve into the science area but enjoy the drama, suspense or whatever of another style. Many of my favourite films are the best examples of mixed genres, those who blend two or more genres seamlessly- this in my opinion allows the storyline and characters to remain fresher and more gripping, most especially to the 'average Joe'.

  2. So I'm interested.... What are your favourite mixed genres?

  3. Well, my favourite is a mix of science fiction (about 40%) with suspense (20%), humour (20%), philosophy & religion(15%), and a dash (5%) of completely isolated non-genre interesting bits, which is more-or-less where I figure my book is. Most especially, Einstein said that science without religion is lame, and I think he was probably smarter than me.
    Inidentally, my email address is
    Ciao for now!