Of Aliens and Men: Science Fiction, a Genre Code (Anthropology essay)

Wohoo, got to write an essay about science fiction! It was fun being able to write about The Hunger Games and X-Men!

This is my final paper for my Language and Culture Anthropology class. We have to evaluate a code, which is a genre (like punk rock music, or fashion, or mystery novels).

Star Wars envisions a planet with a binary sun system, somewhere far, far away…

INTRODUCTION

            Since its beginnings in the mid-1800s, science fiction has crept up to become a dominant genre in the United States. It hit the radar in the 1890s with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, but did not reach mainstream status until the latter part of the century with Star Wars and Star Trek spawning thousands of sci-fi die-hards.

While I am focusing on science fiction literature, its popularity in television and film cannot be ignored: Roughly 44 of the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time incorporate some form of science fiction (Box Office Mojo 2012).

But what exactly is science-fiction, apart from alien invasions and cheesy graphics?

Science fiction is a genre textual code (Chandler 2011). A code is an interpretive framework of symbols that is dependent on many related characteristics. As a result, “Codes help to simplify phenomena in order to make it easier to communicate experiences” (Chandler 2011).

As a genre, science fiction allows readers to experience the mysteries of the universe. It seems like a cliché, but it is true: Are we alone? What if dinosaurs roamed the Earth today? What if I traveled 800,000 years in the future? What if reality is simply a projection from a game? All of these have been the subject of science-fiction plots. If Sigmund Freud were to peer deep into science fiction, he would determine that it represents an unconscious plea for pure escapism.

According to science fiction critic Gary Westfahl, science fiction as a “distinct and self-conscious genre” was founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 (McLeod 2010:170). The Gernsbackian definition of science fiction has three elements (McLeod 2010:170):

1. Charming romance/thrilling adventure (for mass appeal)

2. Scientific fact (intends to be scientifically plausible)

3. Prophetic vision (social consequences of an idea)

BODY

            As a genre, science fiction sets itself apart not with its superb characterizations or sensual love scenes, but by its ideas (Davis 2010:19). “Science fiction (delves) more actively into philosophical questions” (Davis 2010:19).

For example, what makes H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) iconic is its fanciful vision of aliens in tripod machines wreaking havoc on the Earth. The novel ends with the aliens being, ironically, conquered by bacteria and the reader realizes without some Deus ex machina, humanity would have been easily wiped out. And the novel’s protagonist? “Whatzizname, who narrates all this to us, is no more interesting than the cellulose he is printed on” (Davis 2010:19).

Science fiction serves as an unfiltered realm for delving into the deep things of the universe. Fans of ABC’s sci-fi drama Lost realized this, and latched onto the show as hardcore fans intent on discovering the mythology of a mysterious island. Another hit sci-fi show, Fox’s The X-Files, achieved a cult following with fans and had –in 1998- more than 500 fan websites devoted to discussing the show’s conspiracies and mythology (McLean 1998:3).

Science-fiction allows the audience to experience alterity, or otherness, by imagining things outside the normal human experience.

“The media-driven milieu of The X-Files suggests that the whole world is now the same place, all of it accessible, all of it at once safe, dangerous, restricting, liberating. The North Pole is no more or less threatening than the New Jersey woods or a cheap motel room” (McLean 1998:8).

Science-fiction, then, mirrors Anthropology by exposing readers to alien cultures to better evaluate their own culture. Anthropology has ethnographers experience different cultures from places such as Papa New Guinea or Brazil. Science fiction has this alterity by exploring: cities of the future, alien planets, the wider universe, inner landscapes and places outside the traditional mappings of the world (Westfahl 2011:73).

The time-travel sub-genre of science fiction is able to comment on the current society by exploring what will happen in the future. Prominent examples are H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and BBC’s long-running Doctor Who, which follows an alien time traveler protecting Earth.

When The Time Machine was published in 1898, Victorian readers got an etic understanding of their own society’s class struggles. The reader is introduced to the working-class Morlocks and the aristocratic Eloi who inhabit Earth in 802,701 A.D. In fact, the novel can be interpreted as Wells imparting his Socialist idea of class struggle as he witnessed the growing gap between the working class and bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution (Mankus 2006:11).

Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) take an optimistic view that technology helps colonialism (Reider 2010:203). The technology allows the inventor to reach the frontiers of human existence.  “The spatial frontier tends to coalesce with a technological one, because… the effect of the scientific discovery or invention is precisely to give its possessors a form of mobility and access to territories that no one else has” (Reider 2010:203).

Science-fiction also deals with the downsides of progress. Common in science fiction stories is a “Central Brain” which, due to its superior technology, decides to destroy humanity. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the increased connectivity of the world is not used for Facebook and texting, but to allow the government to monitor its citizen’s every move. And in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men (2007), the Danger Room, a high-tech computer room the X-Men use for training, gains self-awareness and seeks to kill the X-Men (Whedon 2007). The Danger Room’s computer had been receiving upgrades to make it more intelligent until it finally realized it could overtake its creators. In the science fiction genre, characters often must defeat the technological threat by curing the corrupt technology, or, alternatively, unleashing a virus to destroy it (Westfahl 2011:48).

Further, technology allows those with the high-tech inventions to conquer the “primitive” people. In Avatar (2009), humans colonize another planet to mine a rare energy source while enslaving the peaceful natives.

“As an extended meditation on the potentials of technology, science fiction uses these end-of-time symbols to envision technology’s ultimate potentials, both good and evil” (Westfahl 2011:43).

But science fiction is not only just about deep philosophical and eschatological questions. Science fiction allows its audience to get lost in another world.

Viewers did not flock to Avatar to watch a 2-hour-40-minute flick about man abusing technology. They came to experience the fantastical, verdant world of Pandora. The planet was the decade-long brainchild of James Cameron, who invested an enormous amount of economic and creative resources into creating a fun new world (Westfahl 2011:73). From the ferns to the floating mountains to the mysterious world, viewers of the film were able to suspend their disbelief and peer into their own imaginations.

“Pandora produced a fictional place which is, for many viewers, by far the single most memorable thing about the film. Much of this impact clearly rests on the alterity of this extraterrestrial landscape.” (Westfahl 2011:73).

The visual power of science fiction cannot be ignored. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars (1917) to imagine a love story set on Mars, an exotic, fantastical planet with flying ships. It was done in much the same way that romantic comedies are set in New York or Paris today to emphasize the love story.

But these portrayals of the future are not always positive. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) has the Eastern United States under continual ash after a nuclear war destroyed most of civilization, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) presents a future in which cities are feudal slaves to a decadent capital.

Unlike space, the science fiction genre is not a vacuum. Science fiction has shifted over time as scientific advances and beliefs changed. The genre is a code defined by its writers, editors, readers and critics (Reider 2010:212).

Genres such as fantasy, action, drama and romance often cross into the realm of science fiction. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) by Audrey Niffeneger is more drama/romance than science fiction even though it centers on a time traveler. Niffeneger does not use the time travel to comment on future societies (the time traveler can only go a few years into the future, anyway), but to show the effects of time displacement on a young couple. And fantasy shares an appreciation to visually displaying an alternate world full of new laws, language and possibilities.

CONCLUSION

            Science fiction is fundamentally similar to most other fiction genres. It has a setting, plot, characters, dialogue and a climax. What differs is science fiction incorporates science and technology to have a story that is other-worldly. Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor from Doctor Who are both brilliant British detectives who solve cases. What differs between them is that Holmes tends to solve petty political disputes in London, whereas the Doctor has: Traveled to World War II London; witnessed the creation of the universe; and saved the Earth from Gothic statues, robots and aliens. Science fiction, as any literature genre, gets readers to peer into the human condition. It might do it with shiny new toys, but it checks the current society’s ethics, morality and path it is heading on into the future.

From spaceships to superpowers, science fiction is a textual genre code that lets man’s creative genius and imagination shine.


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One thought on “Of Aliens and Men: Science Fiction, a Genre Code (Anthropology essay)

  1. REFERENCES

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    2010 The Return to the Frontier in the Extraordinary Voyage: Verne’s the Mysterious Island and Kubrick’s 2011: A Space Odyssey. Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 51(2): 201-215. http://xerxes.calstate.edu.lib-proxy.fullerton.edu/fullerton/ebsco/record/mzh-2010302590, accessed 5/16/2012
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