I like to think that there is some value to writing about people living in space, or in worlds where magic works. Reflecting on the human condition, what it means to experience the universe, even the enduring question of consciousness, human consciousness, might be putatively valuable when we’re confronted with the specter of general artificial intelligence. Tech companies are keenly developing what they call AI, through concepts like deep learning. What might it mean if we develop an artificial consciousness?
One of the places we can turn to is science fiction. One of the enduring themes of science fiction is “what might go wrong” and stories like Disney’s The Sorcerer’s apprentice or Jurassic Park are reprisals really of a theme that goes back a very long time:
What is in the box? In one of the older stories of this theme, Pandora opens her box (jar) and many bad things come out. This same theme of forbidden knowledge is often reflected in many myths, stories, and legends, and is also present in documents like the bible. It’s easy to see how the church might’ve fought against research and the creation of new knowledge, though this narrative about history is being continually refined and in some ways refuted, as even while the church was threatening natural philosophers like Galileo it was also the source of most of the education and storage of knowledge in Europe.
To me, this is a troubling theme, because it implicitly focuses on the dangers of knowledge, rather than the possible benefits. But this theme is at least a theme. What I find disheartening is that so much recent media falls under the banner of “action in an exotic locale”. The Game of Thrones showrunners mockingly proclaimed that “themes are for eighth-grade book reports”. Is there a theme to Game of Thrones? In the novels, there is certainly an overarching, meta-plot, a complex web of intrigue. And there are some obvious reductive messages, feuding noble houses are bad. Violence is bad. Rape is bad. But is there any point to any of it? Do virtuous characters triumph, while villainous ones fall? Not necessarily. And this is reflective of real life. The persistent myth of many of our stories is that the virtuous will be rewarded, but in fact, they often are not. While there’s nothing wrong with being pure entertainment, I do find it a bit saddening that properties like Game of Thrones, Marvel, and Star Trek’s most recent franchise aren’t really about anything. They’re just action movies with different physics and exotic locales.
Star Trek used to really be about the future. Gene Roddenberry, for all his flaws, has an extraordinary life story, and while Star Trek certainly has its flaws, it was very progressive for its time.
Michelle Nichols famously didn’t leave the show because Martin Luther King Jr. asked her not to, saying she was inspiring many. And while many Star Trek episodes are somewhat lacking, and some are either grade-level themes like “racism is bad”, the show also confronted many issues that make us reflect on our humanity. What is a human? What is a sentient being, or a sapient being? Are computers alive, or can they be? Can they be conscious? But the latest Star Trek movie franchise is to me, very disappointing, as speculative fiction. It doesn’t speculate, nor care, and regards themes as eighth-grade book report fodder. The theme is always action and driving a plot forward. At best there is vague emotionally manipulative sentiment, like “a captain always takes care of the crew” or “yet another villain with a spiky ship wants to do something insane”.
Marvel’s cinematic universe is likewise a series of interrelated punching matches. There are a few moments where characters are made to confront their meaninglessness in the face of actually encountering a Norse God, like Thor, or Loki, but these are almost always played for laughs rather than actual introspection. Hawkeye asks what role he can play in The Avengers in the face of beings like Thor, Vision, and even Captain America, and he’s right to ask this question. Encounters with such “super beings” would render most humans impotent. Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (the actor who plays Gregor Clegane, the Mountain) has won many strongman competitions, both through genetic gift and hard work over many years. What would his life mean in the face of an encounter with Thor? Thor is a guy who is so strong he can throw his hammer and hang on and use that to… fly. Captain America is apparently strong enough to prevent the lift-off of a helicopter, which according to Maxim means he’d have to be able to lift well more than 3,000 pounds. The impotence of humans in the face of such potent powers would be, at a minimum, depressing.
The original Star Wars trilogy was meant as an homage to Flash Gordon, westerns films, and samurai films, and coincidentally worked its way through the Hero’s journey pretty adroitly. As a child, I found them fascinating, and remember proudly proclaiming that The Empire Strikes Back was my favorite. As an adult, I watched in horrified fascination as Lucas returned to the Star Wars Universe only to release bland, mind-numbing, action set pieces with sterilized scenery and bad dialogue, and a plot that is at best mediocre and confusing, and at worst totally contradictory. The original trilogy was at least entertaining, the prequels, and sequels, in my opinion, not so much. In truth Star Wars, despite being set in the stars, was always basically fantasy, guys sword fighting with magic powers, chosen ones, and that sort of paraphernalia is just fantasy set in space. And again, mostly lacking in “themes”, other than “evil is bad”. Oh sorry, the evil side is bad. Right the dark side.
It’s not that pure entertainment doesn’t have its place, of course, it does. But I am concerned that as sci-fi and fantasy milieux become increasingly popular and mainstream, Hollywood and Netflix, HBO, and others will reduce to the most common of denominators, and films and comics will revolve around either incredibly heavy-handed, simplistic, boring, and moralistic themes more appropriate for an Aesop’s fable than the realm of speculative fiction, or they’ll ignore ideas altogether, and focus on guys punching, or sword-fighting, or space karateing, or shooting lasers, or “proton” torpedos, or other such paraphernalia, and that science fiction fans will come to similarly reject complex or interesting ideas in favor of more explosions.