For a social science of science fiction

‘What is the connection between science and fiction?’ asks Maurice Blanchot (in Nouvelle Review Française vol 7 no 3 1959 pp91-100, reprinted recently in Arena 25/26 2006). There is considerable material, good science and bad, to justify a long disquisition on the role of technological development among the stars (but breath easy, we’ll not enter that deep space vacuum today). In a future work (ha!) the science of Warp Drive, teleportation, dilythium processing and other tek-babble can be examined. What I am interested in today is where there might also be, as Blanchot points out, discussion of sciences other than physics. In the Trek series film Resurrection, the Federation is undertaking ‘ethnographic studies’ of apparently pre-warp culture, observing from behind an electronic hide-like screen. Due to a malfunction of the kiddy-point-of-view android character Data (I hate Data), the Federation’s voyeuristic documentary invasion and, as is later shown, its complicity with opportunistic exploitation, is exposed. The Prime Directive is once again in danger of violation.

But the violation of the pre-warp is not just a violation of the so-called pre-historical. There are other conceptions damaged along the way (path, trek, track). I’m thinking history and psychoanalysis have to be part of the array. There are many questions for the surviving philosophico-psych-anthrop-planning-film genre crit-political economy crew…

What has the militarization of space done to the imagination of planetary futures if not a foreshortening of possibility? We are presented with a uniform(ed) and hierarchical horizon of anxiety – spaces of fear; a star map of commerce. The key tropes of the Battlestar and the trade vessel (Ripley’s Corporation in the Alien series) might often be subject of critique in sci fi film, but the way we can think – of the possible and the impossible in space – is thereby transduced exponentially downwards.

What lifestyle does the techno-military power of the Federation defend? Up until the Voyager series it was unrivalled commodity abundance on demand, and perpetual travel. Subsequently the replication of ‘Earl Grey Tea Hot’ remains possible, but the boldly-go model of tourism in space is somewhat downgraded into a desperate flight for home. There was a time when the future was a promise of all things improved – new machines and new solutions. Cylons are superior humans, Data is a better robot (but why do Cylons feel pain, why do they want births? Data is the android with a electric sheep’s dreaming). Today the future becomes a worse version of war – an Iraq for all; an avian virus for all; universal ecological catastrophe. The future of solution is replaced by the future of war.

A film like Serenity is typical as a cowboy movie in the same way in which Star Wars was – good versus evil; justice versus tyranny; resistance versus brutality. Of course there is the rogue survivalist turned moral crusader for the worthy resistance; and hide outs; bounties; chase sequences, the earthy wisdom of the old hand; the strong leader and his loyal if rough hewn sidekick; the romantic interest, (though in Serenity this takes on a Buddhist aspect which is hard to reconcile, since the Buddhist herself, not anyone else really, is hardly serene); shootouts; last minute escapes; guns; shooting; last ditch stands; survival… There is something missing in this desperation – and we know its an accommodationist trick – we are limiting the future to put up witht eh present. This is more than a distraction, to be combated with ideology critique (I know its a western in space, but I believe we will prevail – ‘we will fight them till we can’t’ – says Kara Thrace).

Klingons, Borg, Cardassians or even Afrofuturists; the threat to humanity in science fiction serves as a generalized fear that we, secretly, deserve. From the first interracial screen kiss on US TV, between Lt. Uhura and Ctn. Kirk (they were on a planet of psychotropic drugs – Martin Luther King visited the set), there has been a subtext worrying of racial mixture. Fear of a black planet has been the miscegenist anxiety against which ultra-conservative uniformity strives to defend (uniforms = purity). And where are the sociologists in all this – the people (unemployed future urban slum multitude beloved of Zizek) are a curiously hybrid undifferentiated mass of difference. The ground level multicultural scenario in sci fi is more often than not a predictably benign diversity. Bladerunner, Fifth Element, Serenity, and even Star Trek, invoke a world without cultural discrimination – at least insofar as this concerns the ‘federation’, the home worlds, planet prime, ‘us’ etc. The edge of space remains the space of difference and threat – Aliens, Cardassians, Bajoran resistance – all manner of threatening others, and the pre-warp underdeveloped hinterlands… suitable for mining…. So the prime directive permits some to fuck over or fuck with others, but the fear and threat kicks in whenever those others get close enough, or sassy enough – or humanoid enough – to threaten Prime itself.

As far as we seem able to imagine it, the answer to the question of the persistence of imperialism in the future will be a resounding, and depressing, yes. Inevitable exploitation by dominant group; technological inequality; refusal to redistribute wealth; expropriation of labour – the future is going to come true. And our imagination does seem to have faltered, if we take recent sci fi cinema and television as indicative of where we might now want to eventually be. Storm troopers on the march, hostile forces – meteors, rifts in time, dark lords – and any number of alien take-overs or rogue machines leave us wondering if there might ever be that promised utopia, where all Jedi commune in the force by the campfire (those annoying little Ewoks), where machines and humans productively engage (and procreate, not replicate) and where the doomed planet of gas and oil/food/water wars is a paradise regulated by intelligent planning…

But both BSG and ST.Voyager are sustained by denial of utopia. Home, or Earth, is the never attained goal for which all is endured (they will get there at the end of the series no doubt, but it will end in tears). What is endured along the never-ending way entails a systematic discipline, order, rule and regulation, so as to preserve the crew against threat (to Voyager, to the viper pilots, to the fleet, but with a certain attrition). It would be possible to ‘read off’ any number of episodes to glean parable-like lessons for life under global imperialism.

Yet for all its dystopia, the narratives of sci fi as fear surely promotes a subtext of refusal, revolt and revolution against the prevailing order. The only trouble is that any (too easy) one-to-one reading off of role models, means we have the limited vision of the borg or the cylons as blueprint for a revolutionary future. And this is not imaginary enough – we want more, better, dynamic hybrids surely.

Why do all commanders seem so keen to collect earlier vessels and sextants?

[Of all the products of sci fi here, its trek trinkets that leave me cold, though I’ve long been a fan of Ensign Ro Laren, Bajoran conscript – see the second pic, the first one is Lt Uhura of course). Also see Jean Luc’s blog here. And of course Fred Jameson’s book Archaeologies of the Future – Verso 2006 – is the sourcebook, and could have been written as the Encyclopaedia Galactica, praise the Lords of Kobol].


5 thoughts on “For a social science of science fiction

  1. Shai Shahar wrote: > You’d want her to make you surrender and rocket you to the stars Regarding your personal credentials, I congratulate you on your career as a singer and gigolo – – if this is indeed you, but fail to see how this should make you a sage authority on the subject of the moon landings. used the photograph as evidence of his oft-mentioned unaided lunar travel. In fact, “Saut dans le vide” was published as part of a broadside on the part of Klein (the “artist of space”) denouncing NASA’s own lunar expeditions as hubris and folly. sister killed her baby cuz she couldn’t afford 2 feed it And yet we’re sending people 2 the moon It’s silly, no? When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants 2 fly – Prince, Sign ‘O’The Times

  2. The “liberalizing” of Sci-fi seems, like, mostly fucked up, and evidence of the further appeasement of, shall we say, marxist cunts (with Fred Jameson as one of the Cunt comrades, of course). PK Dick, for one, was no marxist, and attempts to fit his novels–say a Scanner Darkly, or “Do Androids…,” VALIS, UBIK—onto the marxist template, seem not only misguided, but rather sinister and philistinish. PKD’s not a fascist either–as say a Heinlein is, whose books approach a sort of techno-fascism—but rather opposed to both Statist and Corporate domination—. “Noir” writing–ala Hammett, especially—was an influence on sci-fi as well (including I would say PKD, and cyberpunks), and noir seems rather more existentialist (in good sense, hopefully) than marxista.The “cyberpunk” fiction of writers such as Gibson didn’t seem particularly marxist either: more like outsiders, sort of techno-beats and hustlers. Ok, the jargon itself has become used up, but the one-size-fits all marxist model –seen even in Jameson –doesn’t really apply, except perhaps as one part of the picture, of the whole, as the Postmod’s say. Daddy Burroughs was not down with the comrades–or comradettes– either, and makes quite a few derogatory remarks on stalinism, the Cheka, and rats in general. The Nova Boys are anything but solid par-tay material. Personally, ah think the Roddenberry-StarTrek spectacle may have been concocted by the CIA, or some Feds to distract the USA from ‘Nam, and to tout NASA, if not a multicultural US military. Roddenberry was, it should be recalled (tho’ most don’t recall it, or even know it), and ex-LAPD Sarge (at least–maybe even more brass), and, well, the LAPD boys have always had f-n juice–Star Snitch. Shatner too seems pretty rat-like, as with most LA TeeVee or movie thespo-hacks–jus’ sayin’.

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