Thoughts On: Sci-Fi
This isn’t an essay on a particular movie, but a genre that expands past film.
I’d have 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.
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