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Sci-fi books and sci-fi movies: worlds apart

AC Left hand

Two posts ago I revealed my childhood obsession with all things Star Wars. I don’t remember when I first saw these celluloid monuments. I remember going to the cinema with my dad to watch the re-mastered versions of the original trilogy, when they were released in the 90s, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was. And I must have seen them before this on TV because I already knew my favourite parts: space chess, X-wings, Hoth, Yoda, the Rancour, Ewoks (yes, I admit it). This enjoyment of the films and wish to know more about that galaxy far, far away led me to Star Wars books. Here were my first steps into science fiction, and from then until now I have kept one foot in both camps: projection and print. Both elements seem to be part of the same whole, but are they really.

Having recently finished a female author sci-fi double bill, starting with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (published 1969) and rounding off with Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (published 2013), I have my doubts. Le Guin’s novel imagines a world inhabited by a strand of humanity with only one gender, where male and female do not exist, where a king can get pregnant, and a person can be father to one child while being mother to another. Leckie’s book gives us a main character that used to be a spaceship, or, more accurately, the AI system that controlled a spaceship. She also presents a civilisation where gender distinctions have been all but eliminated. Iain M Banks, another great sci-fi author, gave us ten books set in the galaxy of the Culture, where people have become near immortal, can change gender whenever they wish, where money and personal possessions have been replaced by common wealth and comfort.

These books present challenging ideas, not because they describe worlds we can’t imagine, but because they do precisely the opposite. And because we can imagine these alternate worlds, where civilisation is built on a different foundation and holds to different rules, they reflect the message at the heart of good science fiction: the world we live in today is how it is because we have made it so, and because we choose to keep it that way, but it doesn’t have to be.

Published over forty years apart, Le Guin and Leckie’s books show the continuing drive in sci-fi literature to challenge societal norms. Science fiction, in short, should be radical.

What of the science fiction of the cinema? Unfortunately, when it comes to radical ideas, it is overwhelmingly still stuck in low orbit. I recently went to see Mad Max Fury Road and, while I most definitely enjoyed the pig-iron mayhem being splashed across the Namibian desert, I was surprised to read in some reviews that this film was being hailed as a victory for feminism because it has a strong female lead. It also includes five actual female supermodels, barely dressed in outfits appearing to offer little in the way of protection from the post-apocalyptic sun, let alone the flame-thrower armed, guitar-playing manic on the bungee-cord pursuing them. As such, the minor concession from normal gender roles in casting Charlize Theron as a female character with a degree of independent agency seems a pretty slim victory.

And I’m not the only way that thinks this about sci-fi movies. In his recent review of the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending, the film critic Kim Newman commented that this supposedly brave (if misguided) vision from the creators of the Matrix in fact uses ‘cutting-edge special effects to deliver concepts pulp magazines had outgrown by 1935.’ A few years ago, Watchmen author and comic book legend, Alan Moore warned of a cultural catastrophe caused by the current obsession with vacuous superhero movies and this week, the UK’s Prince of Geeks, Simon Pegg, spoke of the over-abundance of childish sci-fi in today’s cinemas. I’m not saying there are no good sci-fi films to be found: Alex Garland’s Ex-Machina, for one, is brilliant. But they tend to be small scale, low budget affairs. The biggest, big budget sci-fi film on the horizon is Star Wars. Forty years and we’re back where we started. I’m still going to go and see it, obviously, but can’t we have something new as well.

Essentially, what I’m saying is: filmmakers, it’s time to boldly go where authors have gone before. Treat us like grown-ups and give us some radical sci-fi.

P.S. Now that I think about it, has it ever occurred to anyone that in Star Trek, the Federation are essentially communists?