How JJ Abrams and George Lucas hurt Science Fiction

It seemed an uninspired but safe choice when Disney picked J.J. Abrams to direct the first installment of the new Star Wars movies. He has had solid success at the box office and on television with science fiction shows. Star Trek made $385 million and Lost dominated the water cooler for six seasons. At the same time, the Star Wars property itself is an amazing cultural milestone. George Lucas created a genre classic that was instrumental in moving science fiction into the mainstream of popular culture.

Yet, something has been lost, and the mash-up of J.J. Abrams and George Lucas, Star Trek and Star Wars, seems emblematic of this sad trend. Science Fiction, or speculative fiction, can have enormous power. It has shown to have a unique place within fiction. The very best of it is deep and meaningful. Through its ability to create distance between the reader and modern reality, or even historic reality, it allows us to probe some of the most complex and difficult questions that face humanity.

This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (a biting political satire) and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (How do we look at history?). This exploration of ideas is Science Fictions core genius. It is the most important aspect of speculative literature. It includes George Orwell’s 1984 (Fascism), Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 (Censorship and knowledge), Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars (life, immortality), William Gibson’s oeuvre (Corporatization, the role of Mass Media, merging of humanity and technology), and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Religion, What is god?).

Science Fiction at its best challenges our very beliefs. It can flip our social mores and provide a perspective void of historical, cultural and societal biases. It can ask the deepest of questions without the burden of the expected realities that dominate our existence. It not only has the ability to ask such questions but also explore the possible answers. It can lift us into the heavens and fling us to the farthest reaches of space, and in doing so it can create a mediating barrier between our small, personal and human existence and the deep, seemingly unknowable questions of life, existence, god, death, gender, sex, race, family, community, love and friendship. It can break down our expectations and make us evaluate our own beliefs.

But where is this in today’s science fiction movies?  What did J.J. Abrams Start Trek have to say?  Did it answer any moral, ethical or humanistic question? Did it even ask such a question?  Thinking back, did George Lucas use his massively successful science fiction franchise to ask any of these questions?  Did it challenge us in any way?

I suppose it is no surprise, but it is disappointing that directors and producers like Lukas and Abrams don’t use their massive popularity to do anything more than create big budget action movies. The two really are a perfect fit. The new Star Wars movies will be enormous hits and make billions of dollars for a small hand full of people.  And the public will climb all over itself to go and see a few more explosions, lots of gun fire (and phaser fire and sword fights) and a villain trop we have surely all seen before. It will also be male dominated, with women placed in secondary roles at best.

None of this needs to happen. It is time for these directors to start using their power to create more stories like District 9, Children of Men, Minority Report, Contact, and Gattaca. There are stories to be told and they can be successful. Star Trek made $385 million on a $150m budget, netting $235m while District 9 made $210m and only cost $30m, netting a strong $180 million.

I’m just not sure that people like Abrams, Lucas, Nolan, Bay and all the other big name directors (and studios) really care at all about their stories or their art. All they care about are ticket stubs, 3D-glasses and the bottom line. 


Carl Sagan, Mars, and Curiosity

With the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars I thought it would be nice to look at the connection between Mars as a scientific object and as a science fiction object.

Here is Carl Sagan speaking into the future to the amazing men and women who will eventually step foot on Mars.


And here is Kim Stanley Robinson’s introduction to his classic, Red Mars.

Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of that happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses—except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had.

Now everybody knows the history of Mars in the human mind: how for all the generations of prehistory it was one of the chief lights in the sky, because of its redness and fluctuating intensity, and the way it stalled in its wandering course through the stars, and sometimes even reversed direction. It seemed to be saying something with all that. So perhaps it is not surprising that all the oldest names for Mars have a peculiar weight on the tongue—Nirgal, Mangala, Auqakuh, Harmakhis—they sound as if they were even older than the ancient languages we find them in, as if they were fossil words from the Ice Age or before. Yes, for thousands of years Mars was a sacred power in human affairs; and its color made it a dangerous power, representing blood, anger, war and the heart.

Then the first telescopes gave us a closer look, and we saw the little orange disk, with its white poles and dark patches spreading and shrinking as the long seasons passed. No improvement in the technology of the telescope ever gave us much more than that; but the best Earthbound images gave Lowell enough blurs to inspire a story, the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert.

It was a great story. But then Mariner and Viking sent back their photos, and everything changed. Our knowledge of Mars expanded by magnitudes, we literally knew millions of times more about this planet than we had before. And there before us flew a new world, a world unsuspected.

It seemed, however, to be a world without life. People searched for signs of past or present Martian life, anything from microbes to the doomed canal-builders, or even alien visitors. As you know, no evidence for any of these has ever been found. And so stories have naturally blossomed to fill the gap, just as in Lowell’s time, or in Homer’s, or in the caves or on the savannah—stories of microfossils wrecked by our bio-organisms, of ruins found in dust storms and then lost forever, of Big Man and all his adventures, of the elusive little red people, always glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. And all of these tales are told in an attempt to give Mars life, or to bring it to life. Because we are still those animals who survived the Ice Age, and looked up at the night sky in wonder, and told stories. And Mars has never ceased to be what it was to us from our very beginning—a great sign, a great symbol, a great power.

(Thanks to Alyssa Rosenberg who included this passage in her larger post on the importance of Curiosity)

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