This post is going to be a personal exploration as much as an exposition, since I’m not quite sure what the final answer to the headline will be, but I’m curious to find out: why do I enjoy science fiction so much?
There are certainly plenty of other genres out there. There’s comedy, horror, drama, romance, police procedurals, medical/forensics procedurals, westerns, reality shows, etc. And I do very much enjoy TV shows/movies from each of these genres. So, for the record, I should say that science fiction is not the only genre of entertainment that I’m into (that’d be terribly limiting if it were true!).
I’m also a big fan of classic comedy shows like MASH and All in the Family. Drama series like Breaking Bad or Mad Men are also favorites of mine. Better Call Saul is another (although it’s more of a dramedy). I even enjoy my newly minted, quasi-guilty pleasure Designated Survivor (which is borderline science fiction at times, but I digress…). For movies, I love all kinds; Midnight Cowboy (one of my all-time favorites), Godfather, French Connection, JAWS, Goodfellas, Boys in the Band, and other dramatic classics (the frustrated actor in me, I suppose). Comedies like Airplane!, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Idiocracy and Office Space are also faves. For ‘background noise’, I’m also a CNN junkie, as my wife can attest. Guess I’m just a sucker for all of that (ahem) “fake” news.
Interestingly enough, I’ve never developed much of an appetite for full-on fantasy, which I usually deem as anything with wizards, warlocks, elves, sorcerers, dragons, etc. So I’ve never been a big Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fan, though I do appreciate those franchises for their respective achievements; they’re beautifully made cinema, even if they’re not my personal cuppa tea. Of course, there are exceptions. And like most kids of a certain age, I used to love the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz (we watched it every year on TV when I was a kid; it was event viewing in our house). And I enjoyed the L. Frank Baum Oz books as well (the books with their original illustrations of characters such as Tick-Tock and Pumpkinhead were way creepier and darker than the 1939 film). I am also a fan of the 1985 movie sequel Return to Oz, which is far closer in tone and feel to the books. So with every rule, there are exceptions. And I’m certainly open to good fantasy; it just never seems to ignite my personal interest the same way that science fiction, or even sci-fi fantasy (like Star Wars) does. My default taste usually drifts back to science fiction.
When I want quick ‘comfort’ entertainment? Few things hit the spot like a nice episode of Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Doctor Who or reimagined Battlestar Galactica (thank goodness for my iPad and portable DVD player; they’ve become my best friends in the kitchen when I cook).
So once again, this default of mine begs the question of why? Why science fiction?
Well, perhaps I can trace this back to my childhood obsessions. My earliest childhood obsessions that I remember were dinosaurs and monsters. Dinosaurs, because….well, what little boy doesn’t love giant reptiles that kicked ass and took names across the entire planet 65 million years ago? These things REALLY existed once (and for a lot longer than we humans), and that thought truly fascinated me. I think I knew all of the names of most of the major dinosaurs by the time I was 7 years old. And I can’t tell you the many times I’d imagined and scribbled drawings of personal battles between Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops. Needless to say, the movie One Million Years B.C. (1966) was another annual favorite of mine in those days (it used to show on a local LA station once a year, usually on a weekend). It was Jurassic Park 27 years before Jurassic Park. The movie was ridiculously inaccurate, granted; since I knew even at that age that dinosaurs and humans were separated by millions of years. But at 8 years old? I didn’t care one iota. This movie had dinosaurs fighting and scaring the crap out of cave-humans! Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion dinosaurs, with their almost nightmarish stroboscopic movement and textured scaly skins, made these creatures very tactile and real to me. It was only when I neared puberty that I began to um, notice that an insanely gorgeous 20-something Raquel Welch starred in the film as well…. * blushes *
And I loved the Universal classic monsters (Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon) because even as kid, I loved that fear-adrenaline rush that a good horror movie provided. Foggy sets, shadowy lighting, and the black and white cinematography were great at establishing mood; especially the quasi-German expressionism of the Frankenstein movies. As with many kids, I often sympathized and rooted for the monsters; who were usually the victims in these films. That victimization was a fact that became much clearer as I got older. The monsters were like misunderstood teenagers; not fitting in, and vilified for their lack of understanding of the ‘adult’ world. I found them very relatable. The 1990 Tim Burton suburban fantasy “Edward Scissorhands” is a perfect example of the Universal ‘misunderstood monster’ updated.
I also loved Japan’s Godzilla and Gamera movies. They were campy silliness, but they were great fun. Monsters of all shapes and sizes. The ’60s and ’70s Godzilla and Gamera movies had all the reality of me playing with rubber toys in my backyard, and once again, at age 8 or 10? That was perfectly okay. I also owned some of the plastic monster model kits, with glow in the dark pieces and great little display stands.
Monsters and dinosaurs were common obsessions for boys my age in those days, I suppose. But for me, they were kind of a ‘gateway drug’ towards a greater world; the world of science fiction. That obsession came shortly afterward, with The Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits, and of course, Star Trek. If dinosaurs and monsters were my gateway drug? Then Star Trek was the blue meth of my nerdy obsessions.
Later on, I would have an off and on thing with Doctor Who (these days it’s very ON, by the way…) and of course, there was that little cinematic life changer known as Star Wars. I also began to watch late night syndicated airings of “Space: 1999” (another guilty pleasure). My 12 year old self also had a passionate fling with 1978’s Battlestar Galactica (which reignited with the 2003 version of the show). Later on, it was the campy and admittedly dodgy Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (my Erin Gray crush at that time could fill another column…). But through it all? There was always Star Trek.
I watched Star Trek reruns repeatedly in syndication, I collected the Fotonovels which were panel-and-caption photo comic books of individual Trek episodes; there were about a dozen of these, and I loved each one of them. I would also audiotape Trek episodes directly off of the TV speaker, carefully cutting out commercials to play them back when I had to do something time-consuming and/or tedious, like homework (hehe…).
So, by the late ’70s, my obsessions had moved up from dinosaurs and monsters (which I still enjoyed) to science fiction and space opera. There was even sci-fi comedy, with “Mork & Mindy,” which was “My Favorite Martian” meets “Annie Hall” and starred a brilliant young performer named Robin Williams.
^ Then came the early ’80s and I started to READ science fiction; titles like Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” (1950). That book is still one of my favorite Bradbury collections. Bradbury quickly became my favorite author shortly afterward (meeting him for the first time in 2004 left me weak-kneed, I won’t lie!). Also enjoyed the works of Arthur C. Clarke, such as the short story “The Sentinel” (1953), the Rama books, and the “2001: A Space Odyssey” novelization and its sequels. Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories were also instantly addictive (the short story collection “I, Robot” was must-reading; as was the Foundation trilogy). Also discovered Heinlein’s Lazarus Long series (never cared for “Starship Troopers” to be honest). Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Lathe of Heaven” (1971) and “Left Hand of Darkness” (1969) also became treasured favorites. And I also got into some of the earliest genre classics, such as HG Wells “War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine” (which was very different from the 1960 Rod Taylor movie I’d seen many times on Saturday afternoon television…). Also enjoyed Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (with not a single, ukulele-playing Kirk Douglas singing to a pet seal anywhere in its pages…). Later, I got into Philip K. Dick (the author of Blade Runner’s source book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”). One of his books in particular really resonated with me; the classic “Martian Time Slip” (1964), which deals with autism, colonialism and racism. It’s my favorite of his works. Science fiction literature, unlike film or television, was not limited by budgets, sets, FX, or temperamental actors’ egos. It was in science fiction books that the genre was truly unchained. Very exciting!
This was a phenomenal discovery for a 13 year old kid; that science fiction was a LOT more than kit-bashed miniature spaceships, cheesy sets, robots and lurking monsters. It was about ideas, different cultures, and metaphors of omnipresent social issues. It was about technology’s impact on us. And it dealt with every issue plaguing humanity that one could imagine. Drug abuse, social taboos, sexual inequality, racism, crime, poverty, politics, love, etc. It was ALL dealt with in the pages of the really good science fiction books. The genre was all-encompassing. It was so much MORE than I’d ever guessed it could be in my previous limited world of sci-fi movies and TV shows. You don’t really get that sort of range in a western, or a crime drama procedural. Yes, there was science fiction that was limited to robots and spaceships blasting at each other, but the really good stuff could also be about anything and was unfettered by what was physically possible to produce on a screen at that time.
And as I got older, I also began to discover the ‘layered’ messages within shows that I’d previously known and enjoyed. My younger, less discriminating self would enjoy these things on a simple, action-adventure level. My older self began to appreciate the deeper messages as well as the philosophical content & context. Twilight Zone wasn’t just spooky supernatural shows with twist endings; they were modern Aesop’s Fables. Morality plays of the Mad Men era. They were life lessons; cautionary tales about loss of individuality, humanity, and the price of forsaking compassion in favor of greed, prejudice, baser natures, etc.
And Star Trek… well, I could do on for days about Star Trek; from Spock’s dual conflicted nature as a half-Vulcan living among humans (a perfect metaphor for awkward adolescence if ever I saw one) to the various alien races who stood in for Cold War-era Russians and Chinese, teaching us manifold lessons about war and the value of leaving other cultures to develop without interference (the “non-interference directive”, for example). Star Trek wasn’t just about space adventures; it was about spaceship Earth. It was all about us… or rather, an idealized version of ourselves, who’d learn to be better people. And they were speaking directly to us; the current version of humanity, dropping little hints about how we might get through our current social ills if we learn to value and cherish our differences (the shows’ concept of IDIC; Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) and evolve beyond tolerance; we’d not only learn to tolerate each other’s differences; we could delight in them. That was a future I found very attractive… and yeah, even at age 50, I still do. Even if we never achieve it, it’d be nice to live each day as if we will… someday.
Of course, not all science fiction is hopeful; in fact, dystopia is also a large part of this multifaceted genre. And yes, I loved many of those offerings, too. In fact, when I was a kid growing up in the ’70s? Dystopias were the norm in science fiction cinema before Star Wars burst onto the scene. Movies like the Planet of the Apes films (my favorite movie series in the pre-Star Wars days), Soylent Green, Omega Man and Westworld (with Yul Brynner providing my younger self with plenty of nightmare fuel). Later on there were the ’80s dystopia masterpieces like Blade Runner, The Road Warrior (aka Mad Mad 2), the Terminator movies. And there were literary works of Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison. They pointed the way down darker paths; paths to be avoided. So even these dystopias seemed to have an optimistic goal in mind; to serve as warnings to us all. To show us the price of shortsighted thinking, and to try to prevent us from locking ourselves into a less desirable future.
Even Star Trek: The Next Generation spoke of a ‘post-atomic horror’ that is supposed to happen in the middle of this current century. Given the current political climate, it’s not so difficult to imagine that our species will face yet another great hell to go through before we see that brighter future. One last, great exorcism of our current demons. Personally, I don’t think we will ever fully shed them; they’re part of who we are. But we can actively resist them. Perhaps to the point where they might even become irrelevant someday. It’s a tantalizing promise, even if seemingly defies our current nature. It should probably come as no surprise that my all-time favorite song is John Lennon’s “Imagine”:
So maybe that is the broader appeal of science fiction for me; that break from conventional thinking and the accepted status quo of the world as it is. Perhaps I prefer to see what the world can be (?). Yeah, I’m a big, silly dreamer, I know…
Sci-fi also takes us to places that are not accessible in everyday reality; even to the most jet-setting among us (unless one is an astronaut or deep-sea aquanaut). Its storytelling locales range from 20,000 leagues under the sea to long ago galaxies far, far away. It’s focus can range from stellar empires patrolling distant star systems to microscopic creatures living within a single human cell. Science fiction is a single genre that can be all of those things. It can be as silly as Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, or as sophisticated as The Arrival and Gattaca. It can be as far-reachingingly optimistic as Star Trek, or as gravely dystopian as Mad Max: Fury Road. It can be about conflicts within ourselves or about the nature of what we believe to be reality. Hell, it can even be a set as a western (such as Westworld; the 1973 movie, or its far more complex and rewarding 2016 reimagining).
So I think I’ve answered my own question. I love the science fiction genre mainly because it’s not a single genre; it’s a bit of everything all in one. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations indeed!
Here’s hoping this bit of personal exploration may have shed light on others’ obsessions with science fiction as well. I’d like once again to thank my patient readers (all three or four of you) for your indulgence.
Live long and prosper, everyone.