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Pleasures of Reading, Thinking and Conversing in Science Fiction Age

May 11, 2018

Thanks to Dr. John Reynolds, HMU alumnus, for today's post.

How malleable the notion of science fiction is! What strange places one ends up in when exploring such a seemingly simple question: "Is Star Wars science fiction?" The question grew out of reflections on and discussions about Alissa Simon's blog post “What is Science Fiction” from April 27, 2018. Originally, I planned on exploring important differences between science fiction and fantasy, and I thought that Star Wars would make an excellent cultural artifact for further conversation, especially with the approach of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be with You) and a stand-alone Han Solo movie arriving in theaters near the end of May.

I enjoy the passion found in diverse commentators on science fiction who disagree on the classification, value, and influence of Star Wars. They form a community as diverse as the vision for the Star Wars universe. Some find the films and franchise a threat to the genre of authentic science fiction and a disintegrating influence on culture. Others find it part of a benign or even beneficial paradigm shift in our cultural habits concerning narrative, entertainment, and culture. Some scholars and fans make strict distinctions between hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Some adamantly refuse to acknowledge Star Wars as science fiction, citing numerous scientific and technical deficiencies, while others find a home for it in the category of soft science fiction. Those who commend the soft science fiction of Star Wars tend to align it with the ongoing idea of myth. Such mythic identification links the characters, plots, and themes with ongoing archetypes that continue to fascinate human beings across time and cultures. In an older online posting found on The American Prospect, Cara Feinberg captures this sense of interest while exploring the question "Is Star Wars Art?" She explains how the 2002 Brooklyn Museum's presentation of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth "examines the mythological roots of the now legendary film saga that explores themes of heroism and redemption and the triumph of good over evil through the creation of characters that exemplify chivalry, nobility, valor, and evil...." Likewise, I recall Joseph Campbell making such claims while being interviewed by Bill Moyers about the power of myth and the hero's journey in the late eighties.

A few tangential opinions about science fiction provide additional insights about fans and science fiction that go beyond limited concerns involving just Star Wars. Along with the exploratory and predictive functions of science fiction, Jason Sanford asserts that it actually helps create the future, as he winsomely explains how those techies who brought us the Motorola flip-phone were clearly Star Trek fans. In a style reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if..." comedy, one interesting post describes "11 Habits That All Sci-Fi Readers Have In Common," ranging from "[l]ooking for the real science behind the fake science fiction," to "[c]orrecting people on the differences between sci-fi and fantasy," and “[c]oming up with plans for when the aliens arrive". A formal study of reading habits suggests that the genre of science fiction texts may entice its readers to be less skillful interpreters of texts. I suspect that the potentially bad influence depends much more on a given reader's willingness to read any genre thoughtfully. Although my sample size is relatively small, I have known several high school English students who are as critically adept at analyzing Austen and Shakespeare as they are at evaluating android and space stories. Is such science fiction a foe to those of us who deeply value the Great Books and Great Conversation traditions? I think not. When I think of how much one of my current students enjoys discussing traditional literary texts alongside science fiction stories, I am inspired to assert, "It is a universe truthfully acknowledged that technological, sociological, psychological, and spiritual forces need careful balancing."

An even more extensive demonstration of discussing science fiction thoughtfully comes in Adam Roberts' The History of Science Fiction. Roberts carefully examines the contemporary popularity of science fiction and offers a strange point of origin for it in the Protestant Reformation: Adams asserts that his "core argument is not just that SF begins out of the Reformation; it is that the fierce cultural climate of that time shaped SF, wrote its DNA in ways that manifest substantively even into the 21st century." Roberts provides a striking contrast to the well-worn arguments about science fiction's origin in nineteenth or twentieth century. He notes that his own research that yielded his book's first edition led him to see science fiction

"as a distinctly Protestant kind of ‘fantastic’ writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences, the advances in which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture."

As I reflect on his thesis, I cannot help but think of the root meaning of Catholic as "whole" or "universal." Roberts first provides a helpful summation of his view of a classic Catholic vision of human beings in relationship to the universe:

"To an orthodox Catholic imagination a plurality of inhabited worlds becomes an intolerable supposition; other stars and planets become a theological rather than a material reality, as they were for Dante - a sort of spiritual window-dressing to God’s essentially human-sized creation."

In contrast, he shows how he conceives of the Protestant Reformation vision:

"[The] cosmos expands before the probing inquiries of empirical science through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the imaginative-speculative exploration of that universe expands with it. This is the science fiction imagination, and it becomes increasingly a function of Western Protestant culture. From this SF develops as an imaginatively expansive, and materialist mode of literature, as opposed to the magical-fantastic, fundamentally religious mode that comes to be known as fantasy."

For me, this provides a powerful way for reading the texts of Francis Bacon and surfacing, not only his methodology, but also imaginative vision for scientific purpose. I'm finding motivation to re-read him along side of Dante to further explore these strange contrasts: a rather strong material-spiritual dialectic is at work in comparing these two authors. To clarify his personal position on these two streams of influence, Roberts also gently assures us that he does "not mean to suggest a priority of value or merit of one mode over the other," and that he equally enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction.

Clearly, there is much more to explore in Roberts' expositional history of science fiction, but it offers interesting connections for consideration about the nature and popularity of Star Wars and a host of other modern popular fantastical films. Roberts notes that "[t]he level on which Star Wars works most effectively is precisely as visual myth." By this, he suggests that the appeal of Star Wars and its legacy functions to give audiences a grand sense of imaginative connectedness to our ever-expanded sense of smallness in a really big universe - much in the way he envisions the Catholic imaginative tradition. In this line of thought, even more than the Reformation's break from visual and sacramental ways of imagining the world, our society's increasing secularization leaves many of us hungry for ways to re-enchant our connections to nature, the world, and the larger universe. Awareness of such hungers helps us appreciate Roberts' assertion that "SF is now the most popular form of art on the planet because it has colonised visual media." Star Wars was essentially the first film to break open and popularize this experience of visual myth. Even the current excitement about Avengers: Infinity War resembles the visual myth experience and can be traced back to the influence of Star Wars.

If I understand Roberts correctly, we benefit from becoming increasingly aware of how we get so enamored by the power of visual myth and large-scale spectacles because such self-awareness serves as an important part of understanding our collective and individual assumptions about our identities. Otherwise, we lose sight of many important not-so-visual concerns for pursuing human flourishing. Perhaps, this is Socrates with a lightsaber admonishing us to know ourselves? Consequently, many of the resources for sharpening our visions of the present and the future come from understanding the influences of the past more clearly and deeply, and we benefit from conversing about and reflecting on these influences. With a healthy dose of optimism, Roberts finds a glimmer of hope related to this concern as he opines that the two heroes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens "are, respectively, a competent and brave woman, and a man of Nigerian heritage," and that "[e]ven as it cycles through the comforting old tropes and features, this new Star Wars is proving what SF has always known, that this is a mode of art intensely hospitable to diversity." Indeed, from the urban centers to the outer rim of our society, many ideas related to Star Wars have some surprisingly powerful ways of sparking diverse and thoughtful conversations about past, present, and future visions of human flourishing.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”  – Yoda

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