Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part Four – Fantasy in pop-culture; military SF; and space opera
By Mark Wegierski
An interesting movie from the late 1990s was Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, a sci-fi movie with pronounced comedic and some religious elements. With its possible New Age appeal (featuring a sort of “Goddess”) and numerous pop-culture elements, it was a movie perhaps more about current-day pop-culture than about a seriously-hypothesized, possible future. It also had a white villain speaking with a “cutesy” Southern U.S. accent.
There has, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, emerged the tendency of basing fantasy-type films on prominent videogames, notably Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Tomb Raider, with Angelina Jolie playing the lead role of Lara Croft, proved quite popular. Final Fantasy, which did poorly at the box-office, was notable in that there were no live actors in it – it was based exclusively on computer-generated imagery. Both of these movies featured the so-called “strong female” figure, which has become a fixture in very many cinematic and television productions of the last few decades. It remains a question whether such superpowerful women, that can defeat almost any man in physical combat, are more wishful fantasy than fact.
In today’s climate of ever fewer, truly heroic roles for men, one can nevertheless notice the burgeoning genre of "the lonely, wounded hero" -- which often partakes in a high-fantasy spirit. This is typified by Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical interpretation of The Phantom of the Opera (his earlier Cats musical, based on the whimsical T. S. Eliot poems, also had pronounced elements of myth, mystery, and romance); the recent Beauty and the Beast television series (with its very sad ending); Tim Burton's art-deco/gothic reinterpretation of Batman; the first Highlander movie; as well as Ladyhawke (which showed a single knight dressed in black fighting on behalf of the Church of Rome against an evil heretical bishop and sorcerer of seemingly limitless powers). These could be interpreted as various attempts for “the whole man” to re-emerge, in the face of various contemporary correctitudes that have driven him into “the underground” (or “unconscious”) of current-day society. It may be noted that the serious comic-books or graphic novels have indeed moved in the direction of the portrayal of the personally tormented “dark hero”. Although the overt politics of V for Vendetta (filmed in 2006) are absurd, the Romantic appeal of a figure like V is undeniable. The traditionalist precedents in fiction for the caped hero are The Scarlet Pimpernel – who rescues aristocrats, clergy, and ordinary people from the vengeful Terror of the French Revolution, as well as, of course, the famous Count of Monte Cristo – who strives (in the original book) to set things aright not only for himself but for many others.
Science fiction has a certain heuristic advantage in that it most often is seen to be taking place in some kind of future society, where there exists a higher level of technology than today. The sort of new-old world represented in science fiction could be characterized as one with "feudal values plus high-technology". The prominent left-wing science fiction writer Judith Merril complained ruefully in 1985 that virtually the whole genre of science fiction, especially in its more popular manifestations like so-called "space opera," typified by the Star Wars movies, was heavily pervaded by this kind of typology.
A major subgenre in science fiction is so-called military SF. Although, on the one hand, it portrays a very technicized world of "war machines" and various "gadgets", on the other it also allows for a portrayal of the rebirth of a very "masculine" ethos, of soldiers' honor, of courage in battle, of loyalty, and of zeal in national-type political-military conflicts, which are largely disdained among left-liberals today. The paradigmatic example of this subgenre is probably Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. (Incidentally, the recent movie, largely a parody, was highly unfaithful to the original text of the book.) Another very prominent author of military SF is Jerry Pournelle. Two well-known settings in this genre include the "BattleTech" series (expressed through boardgames, miniatures, and a role-playing game, as well as novels); and the "WarHammer 40,000 A.D." series (expressed mainly through wargames played with futuristic miniatures, as well as in novels and a role-playing game). Both of these "worlds," especially the latter, lean towards a dystopia of an excessively militarized and very grim cosmos, but despite this, they contain within themselves some quasi-traditionalist elements. BattleTech portrays futuristic combat based around so-called “Mechs” (huge, human-crewed war-robots, for which the generic term, derived from Japanese animation, is “mecha”) set in a universe of warring feudal Houses and Regiments. These space empires are mostly European (Russia, Germany, and Scotland) and Oriental (Japan and China) inspired societies. One interesting subgenre of military SF is that focussed on mercenary units, who fight courageously but with cynicism towards the state entities they serve. This allows various writers to voice libertarian-type sentiments about the decency of individual soldiers and the usually corrupt nature of the state entities which they serve. Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) – which also has elements of horror and fantasy -- shows a dark, grim universe where heavily armored human Space Marines battle against various grotesque creatures, such as Genestealers and Tyrannids, reminiscent of the Aliens movie series, as well as against the nasty “Orks” who are shown as talking in a combination of English yob and African-American slang. Another prominent setting was a conflict of “North vs. South” on Terranova (with human-crewed war-robots) by the company Dream Pod Nine.
Another major subgenre of science-fiction, with definite cross-over elements to fantasy, is, of course, so-called space-opera. The origins of the space-opera/star-empires subgenre in science fiction can probably be traced to the late Victorian combination of speculations about the possibilities of scientific achievement, and the then ever-present reality of empire. Indeed, a number of late Victorian authors wrote works based on the then-novel idea of a British-descended "empire of the stars". One of the most important aspects of this subgenre is that travel between the stars must be assumed to be almost as easy as jet travel between the continents on Earth today. Without a relatively reliable form of faster-than-light travel, that can allow for very quick bridging of the interstellar distances, the concept of both the interstellar empire and the space-opera (where, e.g., the hero must reach the heroine before she withers to old age) collapses. The early paradigmatic example of space-opera within science fiction writing is E. E. (Doc) Smith's Lensmen series.
The paradigmatic example of space-opera in film is, of course, George Lucas’ Star Wars series. Although George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy clearly contained certain ideational ambiguities, it could nevertheless be fairly safely interpreted as a cheering, heroic series of movies which played not a small part in the renewal of American willingness to resist the Soviet empire in the 1980s. The original Battlestar: Galactica television series – which also had notable “Cold War” aspects -- and The Last Starfighter, were quite similar, although the latter was initially set on current-day Earth. After a fairly strong beginning, the original Battlestar: Galactica series faded quickly. There was an attempt to revive it in the Galactica '80 television series (when the ragtag fleet finally made it to Earth) which moved from inanity to inanity.
Lois McMaster Bujold has written one of the most successful space opera sagas, about the diminutive and partially-disabled Miles Vorkosigan, who nevertheless drives himself to succeed in a rather socially harsh cultural and political setting.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.