Thoughts On: Sci-Fi

Below are a collection of posts that are not about specific films, but science fiction in general - the genre that fascinates me most.


Sci-Fi Is Stupid

        

I'd like to start by saying I love science fiction. It's, artistically, the most intricate, complex, open and expanding genre of all. You could argue that this is all opinion based, but I disagree. Sci-fi being the best genre doesn't mean it produces the best films. My argument here is based on the beauty of the natural world, of the universe around us - all of it incomprehensible, too vast to fathom. Science, our minute understanding of everything that is, inspires science fiction. The possibilities of the genre are in turn equally vast, equally incomprehensible as its essence - nature, reality, the universe.

But, um.... hold on... no, it's not.

Art is a human thing. It is confined to the minds of artists, of people. This means that science fiction's true essence is imagination. But, not really. Fantasy's true essence is human imagination. There's a very thin line between sci-fi and fantasy though. And that's what I want to put forth for us to then blur.

Science fiction is fantasy made believable. In other words, make whatever you want, just ground it, imply physical truth, some kind of mathematics or science. This is quite obvious. At worst, this idea will manifest itself in the form of: 'Zoreq, plasmodiate the fuels cells and neutralise the Boson inhibitor so we can electrobisphate the z-line booster, up the quanta factor of the graviton bithform, extraddidate the worm hole excretor and get the hell out of here!!'. That's a gross exaggeration, but you get the point. Sci-fi is fantasy made believable - or so confusing you can get away with seeming intelligent. This all means that sci-fi's essence is pragmatic imagination.

What does this all mean? It means that to write sci-fi you firstly need an idea. Let's give an example: the world ends. This is a very basic, common premise. But, that's all right. Next in the stages of writing sci-fi you need research or some kind of scientific knowledge to figure out how the world could end. There's a plethora of things we could do. A comet. A super-virus. Zombies. War. Pollution. Social breakdown. A.I. We've all seen this many times over:

      

This is the first thing that makes sci-fi stupid. We love to use basic scientific ideas that everyone else has used. The hope of writers trying to create the next big sci-fi book or film is to imbue a simple premise and common science with nuance, with good writing, character, plotting and so on. Firstly, this is in no way a bad plan. It makes a lot of sense in terms of marketing and selling a product. But, maybe there's a more interesting way to write...

Let's say we take the simple premise of the world ends, and complicate the science. Before we get into that, let's look at a film that done just this:


What I really should have put up is the first and original Ice Age, but we'll use number 2 because the world is ending. Believe it or not, Ice Age was (to my understanding) the first film ever to be set in the ice age. These are simple enough films, but have a more complex, original scientific premise - a new setting no one has ever been. And, yes, Ice Age is fantasy, but it has a strong basis in reality. What this film implies is a successful means of creating new sci-fi - complicate the premise.

So, back to our premise of the world ending. We could take the Ice Age route and change the setting. We could go prehistoric. We could go back to Earth 500 millions years ago. Better still we could go billions of years into the future. With that, we could not just make a film about the world ending, but the universe - when it all goes dark. There's our premise. The universe ends. Now, there's many theories on how and why this would happen - things like everything coming to equilibrium, stars, galaxies dying out, everything going cold. That's the easy part. The real task comes with putting a character in the situation. Easy fix: time travel. Let's take that and run. Hey, we can even break the walls here. The world is about to be hit by a commit. Scientists figure out a way to time travel - through space and time. They aim to preserve the human species by throwing them out into space (in a space ship) and forward in time. But the technology isn't great, the time travelling technology isn't perfected.

Time's running short though. They risk it and go.

Uh-oh, they're sent hundreds of billions of years into the future where the universe is ending. They now have to figure out how to fix things. How are they going to do this? Well, the greatest humans of the time were chosen to live on. They have to figure out a way to give them time to fix things. They could suspend their bodies in time (with existing time traveling technology) but keep their imagination alive. They could think over millions of years with the aid of computers. In doing so, they create A.I that can help. But, in that there's trouble...

I won't go too deep in to the rest of the film, but, in short, we have Sunshine meets Armageddon meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Terminator. This sounds like a great idea that you're ready to steal from me (please do, I'm excited to see what you produce). But, wait for the next step and the crux of this essay. You need to zoom in on everything and figure out how things happen to make it science fiction. You can choose to take liberties or use hard science, producing hard science fiction. But, stop. You could delve into hours, days, weeks of research into Einstein, relativity, time travel, A.I, such and so on. But, stop.

This is quite possibly the most insane thing you could do as a sci-fi writer. To understand why just imagine yourself in the mid-1800s. Einstein's theories don't exist. You have no grounded understanding of electrons or photons as waves or particles, of gravity of space time. Could you imagine today? Spoilers: NOO!! You have absolutely no chance. If you look at the progress of today, you're not likely to predict the sate of society, the state of the world, in 10 or even 5 years. Why are we trying so hard to do this!? Art is a reflection of self and of your time and place in the world. Sci-fi is a reflection of self in a different time and place. It's the latter specification that makes sci-fi nonsensical.

What has this got to do with creating better books or films? Well, simple. Technology and science is evolving too fast, in ways too complex for you to sensically use today's knowledge to build a future. This means it makes absolutely no sense to do the last step as discussed. Hard science fiction is stupid when you are going 100 of years in the future - even mere decades. As a writer, you should be using imagination, that fiction on the end of sci-fi, to inform details. This means you could take an idea such as a black hole, such as an electron, and distort it - make up some random, imaginative stuff to justify how time travel could work, how physics, nature functions

How do you justify this? Simple, the man from the 1800s predicting today idea. You are a caveman in respect to a society hundreds, thousands of years in the future. Use that fact to produce intricately imaginative, through-and-through science fiction. In other words, produce pure sci-fi not hard sci-fi because scientifically, historically, philosophically this makes so much more sense to do.

Why should you do this? Well, what everyone is after is originality. When you think of sci-fi in this manner, you are taking away all short cuts, you are taking away all chances to use easy fixes, things others could use, come up with. This is so important because when you have an original basis to a film, a strong original basis with a myriad of even partially original ideas, you are setting yourself up to win. Like I made clear with Silent Running, stories should tell themselves. To make them talk, to communicate with your skills as a writer, you need to create these original premises.

This is what all great sci-fi films do. They have big ideas (like the world ends) but the deeper they get into details, the more complex, more original they become. Look at 2001. It's because Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark had the bigger idea of evolution that they had an idea of structure, of extreme pasts and then extreme futures. They then used solid, cutting edge research and knowledge of their time (directly from NASA as an example) to form smaller ideas - like the way the spaceships work. But, get down into the details of the monolith and things get convoluted. However, instead of explaining how it worked Kubrick and Clark left things ambiguous. This produced a classic, a masterpiece, but what if they did explain the who, what, when, where, whys? This is what I implore we do.

Dive into the details of your premise, explain them - you're writing sci-fi aren't you? But, don't use strict science, use you're imagination that has been inspired (to varying degrees) by scientific theory. This is why I say sci-fi is stupid. The biggest reason is: you don't see this happen very often, despite this being an unfathomably intriguing way of doing things - possibly an effective, newer, better methodology.

So, in the end, I don't mean that sci-fi is bad, that every piece of sci-fi should be produced in this manner. In truth, film, all genres, all art, is a little silly, but when we embrace absurdity, take away boundaries, well...

... it's an exciting thought is all.


Why Sci-Fi

      

In a recent post, we talked about Bridget Jones’s Diary with a focus on genre. In such, we explored how to utilise both romance and comedy, in turn, how to express character through the intimacy and emotion these genres facilitate. In writing the essay, I was itching to add a caveat to the idea that the foundations of storytelling are comedy, romance, action and horror. In fact, I did add something of a caveat by exploring wider classifications, of fiction, non-fiction and drama. And because we didn’t explore non-fiction and fiction previously, we’ll take a moment to do this. Both non-fiction and fiction are little more than an exposition of intent for a storyteller. If you wanted to zoom in on the semantics of a concept of documentary this becomes an all the more pivotal concept. Whist documentaries primarily mean to just observe, to document events, there is an inherent contrivance in filming anything. Anyone who has pulled out a camera at a birthday party or social event knows this. The second cameras come out everyone changes, everyone reacts. Some get excited, they jump at a chance to get into frame, do something silly and show off in what is hopefully a harmless, bearable manner. Others go quiet, dip into purses and bags, fix make-up and get ready for a moment of silent glory. And then, of course, there’s people like me who object, who try to escape, who don’t want to get caught in the mess that is this contrived atmosphere. People like me are sensitive to the fact that cameras change people and sometimes aren’t willing to embrace that - hence my dislike of reality TV and my disinterest of many documentaries. But, whilst documentaries aren’t photos at a party or family gathering, there is a camera and there will be an inevitable performance in them. Moreover, the performances captured in documentaries are further corrupted by cinematic language and editing. The documentary is thus an artistic expression of truth at best - it can never be a truly unbiased documentation. The same may be said of actual personal experiences--but then in comes themes of an existential disconnect, solipsism and all that other fun stuff, so, we’ll leave it at that. Suffice to say; fiction and non-fiction are loose classifications expressive of little more than a director’s intent in showing us a story - one in which there is a heavier leaning towards informing than there is entertaining.

Moving to another troubled classification of the stories we tell, we come upon drama. We explored this to adequate depth in the Bridget Jones essay, so we’ll simply say that drama is synonymous with conflict. To define films by drama is then pointless as all films have it. The implication of drama is simply that there is a lack of other themes - our only weak excuse for keeping the term about. However, on the same plane as drama as a classification of stories is fantasy (something I wish we could have delved into previously). This genre or concept, as you’ll be able to put together, is heavily linked to all we’ve discussed in relation to non-fiction and fiction. Fantasy, again, defines the intentions of an artist. Their focus is on the contrivance inherent to anything filmed, their intention is to expose and explore this. Furthermore, this contrivance expands beyond cinema as the camera is merely symbolic of an observer effect. Other symbols that can also represent an observer effect in art are the pen, the typewriter, paintbrush, microphone and canvas. Any tool of recording and projecting a story implies to any subject being captured or dealt with that their current actions are much more than just movement to be lost in time. The actions of a person subject to an artist wanting to tell their story are perceived as significant (because they’re being preserved) and so the person demonstrates, through their reaction, that they intrinsically understand a concept of Sculpting In Fantasy. This is a term of course inspired by Tarkovsky’s concept of Sculpting In Time. This defines his approach to cinema and acts a a philosophy for the artist working in it that will allow you to distinguish the form as completely different to any other. But, whilst those in cinema sculpt in time, every artist sculpts in fantasy. Like I implied with the fact that a director takes reality, films it, edits it and thus transforms it, any artist running reality through themselves, through their art, alters it. This is exactly why tools such as a pen and paintbrush are symbols of an observer effect; they indicate that reality is being taken in and processes, being absorbed and changed ambiguously.

What all this talk of reality, contrivance and observers implies is a question of cinema we’ve certainly asked before. And this question is a simple why? Why is this inevitably contrived form of projecting reality such a heavy focus of every humans life - that is, every human that has ever existed, any human that has had conversations, discussions, exchanged stories, both the mundane and everyday type as well as the more traditionally professional; those in the form of poems, books, paintings, dances, films? The answer seems to be so clear; the essence of storytelling is not the story, is not the subject, the event in reality, but the telling. It is the contrivance, the observer effect, we seek when we want to hear stories. This is all because art’s fundamental basis is communication. Storytelling in any artistic form translates reality, the inert nature of the world, into comprehensible, formalised symbols of communication. These symbols are words, they are images. Without the word (auditory; visual) or images (actions) we, me and you, would have no way of communicating, of using our senses as tools of interpreting the world around us and then relaying it to other conscious bodies - you would not be able to read this essay. Our dire need of these symbols of communication then speaks best to our need of each other. Without people around you, what are you? Without anyone around to recognise your existence, is there much of a point in saying you exist? These are fundamental existential questions that can be overwhelming and begin to explain why people are so interested in aliens, but, people have figured out a way to distract themselves from it. It’s with communication that we don’t have to fixate on the truth that you don’t know who others are; that you cannot see into their mind and you do not know if they’re just a simulation, a robot or machine - thus, you truly have no way of proving others exist as you do. However, the fact that the sacks of meat you talk at talk back is very satisfying. In such is the essence of the human need for an emotional reading of reality. We need to see reality in relation to ourselves to be happy. This spirals into a much wider philosophy of self-centricity we’ve touched on before, but, in relation to storytelling, this need to comprehend the world in human terms, in relation to our own existential predicament, all points to a justification of our contrived stories. It’s the observer effect inherent to the fact that we know someone created stories, books, plays, films, that draws us to them as they imply someone else exists in the world.

This is the crucial element to all films. There is a contrivance, there is a fantasy, because it’s through imagination that humans connect and communicate. Thus, with any story we sculpt in fantasy, we chisel our humanity, our consciousness, our minds into the imaginations of others. The stories we tell thus reflect who we are; we tell the stories that explain ourselves to others, that say what we like, what entertains us, what we idealise and uphold - and such is the existential epitome of art. However, stories, beyond the exposition of personage, begin to explore our perceptual periphery. That is to say that the heart of all art is the artist trying to communicate their existential essence. Veiled around this is a more distant implication of nature itself. It’s through art that we are seeing a tainted reality, one we are inevitably kept from because of an observer effect, but one we nonetheless can get a sense of. Again, it must be said that we can only get a sense of nature through an observer effect, ourselves or other’s, so this is something that cannot be reversed. Nonetheless, there is some sense of truth and reality that is meant to be captured by stories. This reality is attempted to be expressed, through stories and with utmost articulation, in science textbooks. Science non-fiction, otherwise known as just science, is the essence of modern humanity. Everything that represents the 21st century is technological, is scientific; the development of medicine, telecommunications, infrastructure and a myriad of others things that have been made possible by science in its many forms. Because of this we are living in the Man-Made Age, the age where humans have truly began to construct their own nature that isn’t reliant on the whims of the unconscious world around us. I believe this is certainly something that will be profoundly accelerate in our future; a disconnection from reality and a movement into a man-made universe - but, alas, a subject for another time.

What our inquiry into science, our growing focus on deciphering reality on our terms (not just creating them out of nothing) says about storytelling is the most pivotal and interesting aspect of the concept to me. I tell stories, write screenplays, write these essays, because I have an incessant obsession with breaking down and translating the nature of the world to people. I, in short, want to show you the world in a new light. (Such is a higher goal I won’t claim to be achieving, but it is a motivation nonetheless). As implied, I think this translation is what all people are obsessed with - we communicate to give any and everyone our perspective, to shed new light. We do this under the existential motivation of proving we exist - and such explains why I love to explain things; I want to be of some significant by being a perceptual cog between the world and whoever cares to listen to me. My outlet of doing this is film, both on a macrocosmic scale with these essays, but also a more focused one with the genre of sci-fi and my screenplays.

Sci-fi, to me, is the most important, most expressive, most interesting genre of storytelling. This is because it cannot really be defined like non-fiction and fiction can be, like drama and fantasy may be, like romance, action, horror and comedy are. This is because sci-fi transcends each layer of storytelling taxonomics. That is to say that sci-fi isn’t just non-fiction because it is so often heavily reliant on the reality of the world being skewed, on science non-fiction being exposed as science fiction. That is to imply that science non-fiction (just science), whilst our best form of exploring and explaining reality, is a form of storytelling, is a self-centric and observer biased questioning of reality. Whilst there are rigorous efforts put into place to quash observer bias, when we approach the boundaries of scientific knowledge and then peek a few leagues into the void, we are left with a suspending existential unknowing. That is to say that, whilst we know of the big bang and of our universe, we can’t explain what is beyond it both upwards, downwards, inwards and outwards (yet). There is just speculation and a huge philosophical haze. And in this haze, there may be lurking something that completely changes everything we currently think we know about reality, the things we can test to be true, but are ultimately defined in human terms that are unbeknownst to the hidden realities of the universe and all that’s possibly beyond.

The entirety of what we’ve just discussed is the essence of science’s existence in my opinion. I do not mean that it’s an exploration of truth, but that all I raised are unfathomably interesting subjects. Science exists because it’s fun, because it’s philosophy with a shade of reality. This is what links sci-fi, the embellishment of this concept, to more acute classifications of stories; genres - romance, action, horror and comedy. These genres define the emotional reaction and incentive of an audience drawn to genre films. Sci-fi can encompass these emotions because of its ability to push so deep into profound universal topics that basic feelings of horror, awe and levity inevitably will be brought forthwith from ourselves. My ultimate reasoning for liking sci-fi so much then comes down to this...


In the clip you hopefully clicked on and watched is an example of some of the best storytelling you will ever see. I joke not when I say that this digression of Tyson’s is on the same level of storytelling as films by Kubrick, Bergman, Scorsese; books by Tolstoy, King, Hemingway; plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Miller; poems by Elliot, Frost, Milton. Where else can you hear/see something with such great depth, scope, atmosphere, imagination and philosophy? What other stories are as intellectually stimulating and meaningful as this narrative?

This video is the indirect essence of why I write sci-fi.

Science fiction is the entertaining relaying of and pondering upon the most fantastical aspects of our universe when it is at its best. The best sci-fi takes all that captivated the entire audience before Tyson and puts it in a cinema - a place where even talking dogs and fighting robots can encapsulate millions. In such, sci-fi, when done well has the potential to be the best cinema can offer. This is all because it digs into the core of what the genre represents. Sci-fi is not just about facilitating certain emotions that comedies, romances, action and horror films usually do. Neither is it just about the classification of cinematic forms under their structure (drama; conflict) or nature (fantasy; non-fiction; fiction). Science fiction as a defining term encompasses all of these classifying concepts, hence proving the versatility of the genre. Moreover, sci-fi takes a unique approach to the projection of stories. As touched on, sci-fi stories don’t just mean to expose the hidden essence of an artist or audience member, but also the essence of reality. The commentary is on both ourselves and our universe. This is the purpose, this is the impact, this is the significance and poignancy in the potential of science fiction.

So, whilst all sci-fi films don’t live up to this potential, do you think it’s there? Do you see sci-fi in the same respect that I do? If so, what are you going to do about it?





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