|Why the world needs science fiction|
|Written by L. M. Lloyd|
|Wednesday, 18 June 2008 03:29|
I was recently watching a series that was part of what I see as a disturbing trend. It was a show that most people would probably describe as "genre TV." Genre TV being a sickening amalgamation of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and pulp, into an otherwise pretty standard format, just with all the trappings to capture a certain demographic. What I find so disturbing about genre TV, is that it is always made by what I tend to call self-hating nerds. Every time I talk to, or see an interview with, one of the creators of these types of shows, they always have basically the same thing to say, which is that they think the show transcends science fiction, and is really more of a drama. I think that is a real shame, because I think that science fiction transcends drama, and is the first step to creating a new mythology that allows us to come to terms with our changing world.
You see, drama, especially of the Hollywood variety, is hopelessly mired in this 19th century idea that there are only thirty-six dramatic situations that encompass all of human existence. Now, I could argue that I think that was a ludicrous idea back when Polti put it down on paper, but that really isn't relevant. What is relevant is how hopelessly quaint that idea is now, in today's world. I can already hear the writers, who are veterans of a million workshops, and who have taken the thirty-six dramatic situations as gospel, screaming in ire, and chomping at the bit to prove that given enough effort they can twist any situation to somehow fit one of the thirty-six situations, but to those people I simply say that you are astrologers. Sure, with enough effort, any intelligent person can make any list of things meet any arbitrary set of requirements, provided the requirements are worded vaguely enough. That is a mental exercise, not an expression of the truth.
Let me put it another way. Since the 19th century, our understanding of mathematics has changed, our understanding of the human psyche has changed, our understanding of society has changed, our understanding of Art has changed several times, our understanding of the very structure of the brain has changed, our understanding of the very fabric of the universe has changed, and even our understanding of what it means to be sentient has changed. Yet, how we tell stories is still firmly rooted in the 19th century, before Freud, before Einstein, before Jung, before Picasso, before Campbell, before radio, before TV, before man had left the planet, before computers, and before global networks. How we tell stories assumes that the fundamental human understanding of the world around us never changes, and so there are timeless themes to which every story must inevitably boil down. That isn't dramatic theory, that is religion. More to the point, it just is not the case.
There are, ever so rarely, concepts that take root, that forever change the nature of how humans understand their universe. One prime example of this is the medieval creation of the concept of romantic love. This changed the very fabric of human society the world over, as a new mythology was created, that described human mating not as merely a function of property and reproduction, but as a heartfelt union of two souls. Another example is the creation of the concept of inalienable rights and intrinsic equality of all men, which completely changed everything we thought we knew about how society had functioned up until that point. Yet again, the concept of evolution forever changed how mankind viewed his relationship to the rest of the universe. History is littered with artistic, philosophical and scientific concepts that forever changed the very nature of what it was to be human from that point on. However, the thirty-six dramatic situations, or rather dramatists religious adherence to them, make no allowance for that. It assumes that the experience of being human is no different today, than it was in the 19th century. Sure, every so often someone will update the list to make it seem more relevant to the modern era, but at the core is always the same idea, which is that there really isn't anything new to say, because it has all already been said.
You see, on so many levels the human experience fundamentally has changed from where it was in the 19th century, that to try and fit all experience into thirty-six checkboxes from 200 years ago, is completely meaningless, and quite frankly asinine. You are talking about deriving rules from a world where the basic building block of what make up our society were still 100 or more years away. Now, I realize that to religious people this makes perfect sense, because they are usually quite sure that rules from thousands of years ago are just as relevant today as they were then, but not being a religious man myself, I can tell you that is just another article of your faith, and not a proven truth. Even those who are religious have to admit that all religious tomes and dogma of every major faith have had to be retooled, reinterpreted, and in some cases even rewritten for the modern world. Even the most stalwart and literal religions have had to make some allowance for how small the world has become in the age of easy global travel, for better or worse, but not the thirty-six dramatic situations. They assume that a story happening in France, or China, or even on Mars, will have to follow the same patterns, because the basic human condition remains constant, no matter how much the world changes. That is where it really does its greatest damage, and where the only savior is science fiction.
For those who don't know, science fiction, much like the world we live in, doesn't rely on drama. It, also like our world, is about internalizing concepts too complicated for anyone to fully understand, in a way that makes them personally relevant. In that way, it serves the same function as mythology, and I will argue, is actually the only constructive venue available for forging a new mythology by which to understand our world. People often incorrectly discount mythology as being those silly stories people told back before they understood how things really worked,Â or incorrectly elevate mythology as being the sacred rights of a society, but mythology is neither. Mythology is a tool humans use to come to grips with that which they cannot understand. Now in the past, that usually took the form of a metaphoric attempt to ascribe meaning to something which was beyond the current knowledge of the society. This was because, before we had information indexes, and more importantly before we had mass communication, people were pretty much limited to the knowledge they, or their immediate society, could investigate and explore, and then share amongst themselves. This left huge holes in their knowledge, simply because one society only had a finite set of resources to devote to research, be it philosophical or scientific. The rest, was explained by myth. Now, on the other hand, we find ourselves in a situation which is quite unique in human history, where any person can readily access more information on any subject than it is possible for them to ever digest and synthesize. Many people would argue that this very ability obviates the need for mythology, but it doesn't. Rather it gives rise to a whole new need for mythology. A mythology, not to fill the holes left by our knowledge, but a mythology to make sense of the overwhelming torrent of knowledge.
Whether it is a lack of information, or too much information, whenever humans cannot discern the answer to a question, it gives rise to mythology. Science fiction, at least at its inception, and through much of its history, I believe has been the expression of the shamanic traditions of mythology in the modern environment. When I say that science fiction comes out of the shamanic tradition, what I mean is that it is an expression of a person in the society, who has a special insight into the more arcane aspects of that society's understanding of the world, taking it upon themselves to weave their arcane knowledge into a mythical structure, that can then be better understood by their people, at least at some level, without having to delve into the finer, and more specialized, points of the knowledge. I suppose the purest expression of this can be seen in the works of hard science fiction authors like Asimov and Clarke, as well as many others. It has been the work of people knee-deep in the theory and philosophy of what would shape our lives in thirty or fifty years, expressing those ideas, and their implications, in artistic and metaphoric terms, so that people could try to come to terms with it before it was already upon them. It has been an exploration of how to view technology personally, and at times a warning of the wrong turns it could make. It has been a new mythology of the world that included all the new permutations our changing understanding of the world brought, that no one else saw coming, because there was no historic precedent. Unfortunately, as has always been the case, the rulers (politicians), hucksters (corporations) and clerics (religious leaders) would rather you get your mythology from them, and let them make up the myths that suit their agendas. After all, when you control how people understand a subject, you control what they will think about the subject, and thus how they will act regarding that subject. This is where the self-hating nerds really disturb me. This shamanic tradition is, to my way of thinking, one of the highest callings any person can have, as it literally informs all of society, and thus betters the lives of everyone. That is a calling anyone should be proud of. Unfortunately, the people who I refer to as self-hating nerds, have allowed themselves to be convinced that they should sacrifice their insight upon the altar of corporate media, and instead of forging the new myths our society so needs, they instead just provide the trappings for myths of materialism, superficiality and uniformity the hucksters want them to peddle, while denigrating those who would provide genuine insight as naive neophytes who have not "grown up" enough to realize "what sells." Thus you end up with "genre TV" that uses the promise of the inspiration and understanding of science fiction, but rather than providing any new way to understand the complex informationscape surrounding us, it just reiterates the same themes you could get from any soap opera, or cop show, all hopelessly rooted in the antiquated thirty-six dramatic situations that completely ignore the challenges of modern life. This leaves people nowhere to turn for comprehension of all those things they still don't understand, but to the politicians trying to sell them policies, companies trying to sell them products, or religious leaders trying to get their servitude.
No one except the science fiction authors are even trying to make sense of the world of tomorrow. Everyone else is trying to shoehorn the future into the past, and pretend that nothing ever changes, so you shouldn't either. Everyone is so busy trying to ignore how fundamentally our society has changed, that it leaves people completely adrift, to be picked off by predatory purveyors of malicious information, looking to use confusion to their advantage. We need a new understanding of the world, and if no one is willing to give genuine insight, then there are plenty of people who will happily take the money to maintain the illusion of the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo of the post-war industrial world, does nothing to prepare people for an information age quickly approaching 10 billion people, and where the most vital skill is the ability to discern useful facts from junk information. So, the next time one of you self-hating nerds defers to a script consultant because he has a proven track record of selling shows, why don't you ask yourself "am I really doing anything to help people understand the world they live in, or have I just given up on saying anything important, to get a nice paycheck?"
|Last Updated ( Saturday, 19 July 2008 01:42 )|