Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

Premises in Sci-fi

January 3, 2012

My all-time favourite book as a child was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The great thing about having a favourite story, is that your emotional connection to it is impervious to criticism. Years go by, not very good adaptations get made, the work goes in and out of fashion, and yet still your connection to the work remains.

When something's your favourite, there are lots of reasons why that might be the case. But for me, number 1, top reason why I love The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe so much was that idea that maybe, just maybe, if I open up my wardrobe, I could escape to another world, be someone else, and go on adventures. The magical object that was the wardrobe was a mirror for the object I held in my hands: a book. That book carried me to another world, and did so in such a beautiful way, that the book became my favourite. The Neverending Story is another all-time favourite, too.

I write and love to read and watch sci-fi. But not all sci-fi, and I'm pretty selective. I love a good hook to a story, and the kinds of premises I like are not the "what if"s but the "when"s. Sure, you could say that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is a "what if, when you open up the door to your wardrobe, you could crawl through to a far away land?" But to me, and my child-mind, that's not a "what if", that's a "when". WHEN I open that door, this could happen.

Sure, we're all familiar with this idea, it's obvious - suspension of disbelief. You craft a premise that's far fetched, but grounded enough in reality that if you think about it, maybe, just maybe it really could happen. But to do this well, I think, takes some skill. That very premise that exists in the Narnia tales obviously exists in Alice in Wonderland (to fall down a Rabbit Hole), in The Neverending Story, and other works you maybe wouldn't call sci-fi. But I like to think of sci-fi, or my favourite sci-fi at least, as essentially modern retellings of fairy-stories. Of being sucked away to a magical land in which the possible is inevitable. The prerequisite being that I've got to imagine how I could possibly go from where I currently am, to the world of the story. This to me, turns a "what if" into a "when". When an idea is crafted such that it doesn't feel like "this could happen", but "if these events occur, this is the necessary result." Okay, some favourite examples from popular American film:

Alien (1979): A mining crew, trawling deep space discovers a strange transmission from a small planet. They head down to the surface and ultimately discover a predatory alien that will destroy them one by one.
- This, to me is pretty much what I expect will happen at some point when space exploration becomes a reality. We know we live in a vast universe, and people have spread across our own planet like a plague, killing and conquering in our path. It stands to reason that one day, we will meet our match.

Jurassic Park (1993): An entrepreneur exploits the latest fruits of science and creates a theme park filled with cloned dinosaurs. Researchers go to inspect the island, only to discover that a combination of human hubris and corruption allows the survival instinct of the dinosaurs to come out. The dinosaurs take out the humans, one by one.
- This is, again, pretty much what I expect will happen with any new scientific discovery. The human desire to exploit the capabilities of invention, which has enabled the best of modern living, will spell our downfall. This film in particular though, enables us to glimpse the awe and beauty of a time before we existed, and creatures stronger than us.

The Terminator (1984): In the not too distant future, humans become so reliant on technology they give over power to AI of their own construction. The machines revolt, annihilating the human race. One man heads back in time to reverse what he can.
- Now that we're in 2011, Terminator could easily be viewed as a film about technophobia, but rather, it illustrates the very real fear of when our dependency on technology becomes too much. What will happen when the thing we've created becomes stronger than us? There's a sense of inevitability to this. And the prevalance of computer viruses and malware is a good example of how people will sabotage their own creations in ways The Terminator foreshadows.

Back to the Future (1985): When a teenage boy's crazy old scientist of a best-friend is killed by a group of terrorists, that boy heads back in time to stop it from happening. Unfortunately, he heads 30 years back in time, and has to find the younger version of that crazy old scientist, to help him get BACK TO THE FUTURE.
- Compared to the above films, this sounds a little far-fetched. A little more like a "what if". But to me, this is really more of a when. When you're a teenager, and mucking around with some pretty crazy stuff that you know you really shouldn't be, WHEN it all blows up in your face, you'll do whatever you can to set it right again. To clean up your mess, so your parents don't find out. Only no matter how good a job you do of cleaning it up, it's the never the same as when you started out.

The Matrix (1999): When some disaffected programmer discovers that a hot kung-fu fighting goth is interested in him, he realises that this cannot be reality. He takes a chill-pill and discovers that he really is pale, and very, very badly out of shape. But with a few lessons, he can high-kick like the best of 'em, and enjoy consensual reality for the deluded pleasures and chase-scenes it provides.
- Okay, so I didn't do such a good job of encapsulating what The Matrix is about there. It's actually quite a difficult story to describe, The Matrix, because it's not a very good conventional story. The first 45 minutes, I'd argue, is just sub-plot - the whole "what is the Matrix, what is reality?"question, is just a fancy way of getting the stuffy programmer to quit his day job, and become a goth. After the 45 minutes, and he's made his first real friends, he discovers that from time to time, he's going to have to go back to the metaphorical day job, but not without his long overcoat and sunnies. But now he's capable of asking not "what is reality" but "who am I?" And ultimately, he discovers that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of him, whether or not he's the one, he's seen Terminator 2, he can make up his own mind. And so he does. He's Superman.

Okay, I do actually like The Matrix, but it's also very fun (and easy) to bag it out. Yet still it conforms to my "when" not "what if" idea. The Matrix is essentially a sequel to Terminator, only this time we've been captured by the robots, presented with a false reality, and lulled into a sense of complacency with our lives. This doesn't seem like something that is going to happen in a literal way, not say in the same way as Jurassic Park feels logical, but in the Matrix, it's the high-school philosophy equivalent. It's CONSUMERISM MAKES US BELIEVE IN OUR FABRICATED REALITY. You know, something like that.

So there you have it, one way or another, the above films, for me, capture that same sense of awe and wonder that the Wardrobe did for me back when I was a kid. In the premise of the sci-fi story, I can bridge my life to the sci-fi story world, THROUGH the premise, and the plot of the film or story itself is an extrapolation of that same premise. That's what keeps me watching, and it's one of the reasons why I'll return to that story again and again. There are heaps of recent examples I could cover like Another Earth (2011), Gantz (2010), Troll Hunter (2010), Moon (2009), Primer (2004), and Abre los ojos (1997), and it's great to see filmmakers (for better or worse) working in fertile ground, using sci-fi to explore real and tangible extrapolations of fantastic ideas.

But there are so many sci-fi stories that don't work for me. Those are the ones where I'm incapable of bridging my own life to the world of the story. For whatever reason, I cannot relate to that story, for it feels like a hypothetical. It isn't telling me anything true about the world, but rather, it's just making stuff up. We live in a time when we feel like we know what goes on in the world. The earth has been mapped, we have information at our fingertips. The woods are no longer mysterious and filled with unknown and unknowable monsters. Our summers aren't spent lazing about in parks wondering about rabbit holes. Our time at home isn't so idle that we can dream up the world hidden inside a wardrobe. And so our dream-life becomes more complicated, and gets filtered through the prism of science and knowledge, until that neverending curiosity, awe and fear of the unknown resurfaces, unbidden, in the form of the science-fiction story. They're the same old ghost stories we've told forever, and will tell, continually, for ever and ever more. And they're my favourite kinds of stories.

But the good ones are about "when", not "what if".

No comments:

Post a Comment