Science Fiction and the Frontier

Science Fiction in the United States has a very close relationship with the idea of the American West, the frontier. It is so ingrained into our cultural DNA, that presidents often associate the exploration of the heavens with the freedom and romance that the settlement of the American West afforded our country. Both Bush Presidents had some interesting words to say about the subject at various points in their terms in office:

"We'll build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the Moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own. . . . We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos", President George W. Bush, speech at NASA headquarters, 14 January 2004.


"Our goal: To place Americans on Mars and to do it within the working lifetimes of scientists and engineers who will be recruited for the effort today. And just as Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to open the continent, our commitment to the Moon/Mars initiative will open the Universe. It's the opportunity of a lifetime, and offers a lifetime of opportunity", President George Bush, 2 February 1990.

At a recent conference at NASA Headquarters in April, this very subject was brought up:

It's very easy to see the influence that the West has on science fiction: the first Star Trek show was pitched to CBS as a 'Wagon Train to the Stars, while the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, certainly has its influences as well, while other films from the last 1970s and early 1980s are more explicitly influenced by western movie tropes: Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton, depicts a futuristic western amusement park, while Outland, directed by Peter Hyams, is heavily influenced by the western film 'High Noon', as a Federal Marshal goes up against company men in a mining colony on Io. Moving forward, the television show Firefly, created by Joss Whedon, compares the expansion of humanity into space with that of the expansion into North America. There's others, to be sure, with a new addition this week, Cowboys and Aliens. At the same time, the growing field of Steampunk (Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and Deadnought come immediately to mind), is likewise filled with images of the American West.

The West represents a romantic character vision of the United States. It was a time of intense growth, formative change, and really the last point where it's perceived that people could literally shape the country. At the same time, it's associated with the freedom for a person to make something of themselves, either by pulling up their roots and heading out to restart their lives in the wilderness, or to build an empire, as many of the industrial barons did throughout that time.

While people at the conference disagreed with the association - they likened it to not the west exploration, but to polar exploration - they did note that it's a valuable association to bring to bear, noting that the space program has often been justified with comparisons to the American West. It was the United State's mission (for better or for worse) to expand then, while space offers unlimited potential for (if highly expensive) growth for the future.

But more than that, the romance of the Wild West offers something to science fiction that I've really only seen in stories that have come out of the United States (granted, I'm not well read on non-US SF/F), which is the ability to tap into this idea that we are at our greatest when we're fresh, when we're exploring and discovering new lands, people and adventures, rather than sitting idly, stagnating as life becomes more and more complicated. In the current political and cultural problems that the US is currently facing, it's easy to see why stories, and particularly, science fiction, can succeed so well: it's relatable, and escapist at the same time.

As was talked about at the NASA History Conference, the differences in reality aren't really there: to travel from the East Coast to the West coast in the 1800s, one was reasonably certain of fairly low costs (in the hundreds of dollars), not to mention the potential for a livelihood, food and supplies, and the companionship of everyone else who had the same idea. Polar Exploration, on the other hand, holds no such assurances: the conditions are harsh, unlivable, with few prospects to live on, and a far higher cost.

Space travel falls far more closely with the latter style than the former, and as such, it's not marketed to the American public as such: it doesn't fit with our views of how things should be. And that's okay: the American west has its innumerable stories, a broad canvas from which to be influenced by. It's dramatic, tragic, and beautiful: a good place for stories.

2010 Film Recap

After last year, with some excellent films like District 9, Moon (and less excellent, but still fun to watch, like Avatar), 2010 felt downright dull when it came to the genre films that came out in theaters. So far this year, I've only watched a couple, in and out of theaters, although there are a couple that are currently available to rent through a local Red Box, which I'll likely do over the next couple of days.

Of all of the films that I've seen thus far, Inception is by far the best, not only of the year, but it's going onto my 'Top genre films' list, which includes films like Moon, District 9, Solaris, Minority Report, and others along the same caliber that I’ve enjoyed. Inception worked on almost every level for me: it had a compelling, interesting and relevant plot, was excellently shot and directed, and has a fantastic soundtrack that I’ve listened to a lot. It’s a film that I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing again after I saw it in theaters, and I was particularly happy to see a film that was not only smart and interesting, but that caught with a broad appeal and actually did quite well at the box office.

How to Train Your Dragon was a film that I saw recently that really surprised me. Megan and I rented it on a whim, and we both really enjoyed it. It’s a standard pre-teen action/adventure animated movie, with a focus on the fighting and happy ending, but it’s a fun little story of friendship and doing the right thing. And there’s dragons, some funny moments, quite a bit of action, and some excellent voice acting. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming in a couple of years, and I’ll certainly make it a point to see that one.

Along with How to Train Your Dragon, we rented Toy Story 3, which was a great capstone to the first two films, although given how long it’s been since I’ve seen the 2nd one, it’s hard to compare them in terms of quality. This new addition holds up wonderfully to the first film, something I consider a formative film in my own childhood, and treasure it deeply (along with the lessons learned there: treat your things well). #3 felt very dark at points without going overboard, but retained the charm of the first two films. Beyond that, it aged well, with Andy headed off to college, making this film a very different one in tone, and not just a rehash of the first two.

Daybreakers was another surprise, and while people seem fixated on the horrors of the sparkly Vampire novels and urban fantasy, this film makes its own departures and is able to retain some of the more horrific and over the top elements nicely. There’s an overt political and environmental message embedded in the story, but it fits well. The story of vampires running out of blood and mutating was a fun one, with some over the top elements, some neat science fictional ones, and Sam Neill being creepy.

Iron Man II was a letdown after the first Iron Man movie. Where the first was a fun, concise story that rolled together the military industrial complex and the wars in the Middle East, the sequel attempted to do the same thing, while also setting up the upcoming Avengers movie, juggle multiple villains and the Demon in a Bottle storyline. It’s a case where they should have picked one or two and focused on those, but despite the glaring problems, the film is a fun one, with action, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Hopefully, they’ll get the 3rd one right when that’s released in a couple of years, and I’m guessing that many of the problems are due to studio interference, rather than the people who actually filmed it.

Clash of the Titans was a bomb: a big, stupid fun bomb that was pure popcorn fare. Not worth picking up by any stretch of the imagination (I ended up winning a copy), but it’s worth watching for the overblown effects, crappy acting and monsters going around eating / killing / maiming people in various ways.

I couldn’t even get through The Book of Eli. A coworker of mine told me the ending afterwards, and I’m not missing anything after falling asleep while watching it. There were some interesting action sequences and a cool premise, but it just couldn’t hold my attention.

There were a bunch of films that I wanted to see, but simply haven’t had the chance or time to do so yet: Wolfman (despite the horrible reviews), Green Zone (Jason Bourne lite?), Social Network (Aaron Sorkin is one of my favorite writers), Kick Ass (Which looked like an incredible amount of fun), Splice (which was apparently a well acted, scripted and shot film), Predators (which looked like fun), The American (Artistic spy film?) and the recently released Black Swan, (which looks and sounds incredible). A couple of these, like Predators, Splice, Kickass, Green Zone and Wolfman are all available to rent, so I might end up going that route before buying any of them.

And, of course, there’s a couple of films out there that are about to be released: True Grit, a Coen Brothers western, which looks like it could be an interesting one, based off of the original John Wayne film, while I’m also interested in the last Harry Potter film, The Deathly Hollows, Part 1 (I’m rereading all of the books now). The last film of the year that I’m eagerly awaiting, Tron: Legacy, for some pseudo-Cyberpunk blockbuster action is out next week. I loved the original Tron when I saw it earlier this year, and it’s one that I’m already anticipating for the big screen.

After this year, there’s a couple of films that I’m looking forwards to for 2011: Battle: Los Angeles is going to be a certain theater visit for me, The Adjustment Bureau, based off of a Philip K. Dick story, as well as Sucker Punch, which looks like pure male fantasy (and every geeky trope lumped into one story). Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film is also to be released (I loved Moon, so I’m hopeful for this one.) and the summer, with Thor (Maybe), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tides (Sure), X-Men: First Class (Yep), Super 8 (J.J. Abrams film), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Maybe?), Captain America (Maybe), Harry Potter 7.2 (depends on the first one), Cowboys and Aliens (Yes!), all looking like a bit of fun. The fall will also bring in the first Tintin movie, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, which I’m eagerly awaiting. There’s also a second Sherlock Holmes film in there somewhere, which might be fun.

2010 felt like a bit of a lax year – there were some other genre films that came out, but there really wasn’t anything that caught my eyes or attention beyond the films that I saw (or otherwise listed). Between ’9 and ’11, there are quite a few interesting things set to film, and if anything, it’s a reaffirmation that Science Fiction and Fantasy are both still pretty popular when it comes down to the wire. Except this year, for some reason.