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Introduction to Science Fiction
Science Fiction as a Way of Life
Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. H. G. Wells
It is 1953. Six years old, my young mind completely enthralled, I am mesmerized, sitting with my parents and sister in the Alhambra Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut, watching the newly released movie The War of the Worlds. Up on the screen the drama unfolds ...
Fear, if not panic in her eyes, the young woman approaches the priest — her uncle — from behind. She puts her hand gently on his arm; but as they talk her grip becomes ever tighter as her anxiety mounts. She is trying to convince him to return to the safety of the army bunker. But the priest's eyes are fixed, gazing toward the mystery — perhaps the miracle — coming into view across the open field. "If they are more advanced than us, they must be closer to the Creator," he says. (Is this true? Do the potential wonders of science and the faith of religion meet in this insight?) The uncle persuades his frightened niece to go back into the bunker.
The priest walks forward across the charred and smoking field, chanting "Though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death ..." An eerie melody — spiritual and unearthly in tone — steadily rises in volume, setting a cosmic ambience to the scene. The priest holds up a small Bible with a bright golden image of the Cross on its cover — the image of his God.
Inside the bunker, the army personnel spot the priest walking across the field. The young woman rushes to the narrow lookout opening and seeing her uncle, screams in terror.
In front of the priest, coming into view are three saucer-shaped machines, each floating high above the ground, steadily moving closer. Presumably the machines are from Mars. Without much evidence to go on, that's what the scientists have said.
The machines are black, their two lateral tips and bulbous tops a glowing emerald green; long, curving necks, suggestive of sauropods or plesiosaurs, snake up out of their bodies. At the end of each is something like a head or an eye that pulses in light and sound. The machines seem like some kind of sentient animals. How very strange these things are.
The leader of the triad descends, lowering its great eye toward the priest, as the beating sound from its menacing presence grows louder. The priest thrusts the Bible with its holy image of the Cross upward. (This is the symbolic face-off between earthly religion and transcendent science and technology, a critical archetypal theme in science fiction. Are science and God one? Or are science and God at odds?) The sound from the Martian machine intensifies, reaching a vibratory climax, and out of the Martian eye blasts a stream of scintillating light rays, totally obliterating and vaporizing the priest.
The surrounding army artillery explodes in a tremendous assault of fire power directed at the Martian machines. Tanks, cannons, rockets, machine guns, bazookas all open fire. The sound is colossal. But the Martian machines are impervious, deflecting the army shells with some kind of protective and invisible force. The machines fire back, rays spewing out from their "heads" and pulses of green light-energy shooting outward from their lateral tips. Tanks, cannons, trucks — all forms of human gunnery vaporize in blinding green flashes, as do the humans, their skeletal outlines momentarily visible in the green ghostly glow.
We are powerless against this level of technology, the scientist in the bunker tells the colonel crouched next to him. We are like children against these things, primitive creatures confronting the unfathomable forces of the universe. The retreat begins — a man bursts into flame; a tank glows and disappears; the colonel is vaporized; everyone runs for the hills; the rout of humanity has begun.
Eventually after the Martians decimate most of human civilization, and even stand imperturbable to a direct hit from a hydrogen bomb, they are defeated by God and bacteria, an ending that, as a six year old, I initially found ingenious. (Although I also felt sad that all the Martians died and their wondrous machines collapsed.) As explained in the movie, bacteria on the earth were created by God; the invading Martians were not immune to our germs; and after a sufficient time, the Martians became infected, grew sick, and died. In the end our faith is vindicated, the priest's life is redeemed, and God in His divine benevolence and foresight overcomes the mysterious and malevolent invaders from the great beyond. Yet, at some point after viewing the movie (I can't remember when), I realized that the resolution was lame, since if the Martians were so advanced, why didn't they know that they could be mortally infected by the indigenous microscopic organisms of the Earth? In the final analysis, in the movie The War of the Worlds, the door to wonder — albeit a terrifying wonder — and the transcendent mysteries of the universe was opened, but then slammed shut (Lombardo, 2015a).
* * *
Still, after first watching the movie, my adrenalin was flowing. I repeatedly relived its scenes in my mind. At a gut level, the movie had engaged and charged my psyche — my total being came alive in the experience of viewing The War of the Worlds.
I became inspired to write a short story of aliens invading the Earth. I created illustrations for the story (with Crayola Crayons). I recruited some of my friends to play the different roles, envisioning that somehow we would do a neighborhood play. I designed costumes (which presumably my friends' mothers would create). Two of my friends volunteered to be the director and producer of the production; others volunteered to build props. We were going to "live the future," a future of spaceships, aliens, and great battles to defend the earth.
My science fiction story though was never brought to the big screen, or even realized as a neighborhood production (for one thing the props and costumes were too elaborate and expensive — my allowance at the time was 25 cents a week), but I saved the illustrated story and still have the original booklet — my first screenplay and second story, created when I was seven years of age. My first illustrated story had been about dinosaurs — a "Lost World" scenario written the year before and also inspired by a movie I had seen, the black and white underground cult-classic, starring Cesar Romero, Lost Continent (1951).
Whatever my level of success as a movie producer and writer at the time, the main point of this childhood experience is that the science fiction movie, The War of the Worlds, produced by George Pal, and very loosely based on the novel by H. G. Wells (which I did not read till years later), totally engaged all the dimensions of my mind and galvanized my behavior. With its intense sights and sounds, the movie stimulated and excited my senses; with its tension and drama, it charged my emotions. It inspired my motivation to act; elevated my intellect, thinking, and imagination into cosmic speculation; seeded my creativity; and provoked in me an urgent desire to share this powerful experience with my friends, leading to collaborative, albeit unrealistic, social action. With its strange and other-worldly realities, it expanded my consciousness, evoking in me a sense of mystery, awe, and wonder. Creating and attempting to play act the story, at least momentarily, gave me a sense of personal identity. I was going to be a writer and producer of science fiction.
In fact, throughout the 1950s, I was an avid movie fan of science fiction, bedazzled and inspired by such early classics as When Worlds Collide (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), Them! (1954), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Mysterians (1957/1959), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The Time Machine (1960), and the best of the best of that period, Forbidden Planet (1956). These early experiences with science fiction cinema and my enthusiastic efforts in writing and producing science fiction exemplify the total person immersion that science fiction can generate in people.
Having watched hundreds of movies — many of them many times over — and read thousands of stories and novels through the years, my fascination and love for science fiction has continued up through the present time. It is, indeed, a common occurrence that science fiction enthusiasts become hooked when they are young and stay devoted fans throughout their lives. And with accomplished science fiction writers — Isaac Asimov as a noteworthy example — the spark to write science fiction was ignited in childhood through reading it. In my case, I have written about science fiction and taught numerous workshops and courses on the topic. And as this book shows, I have created an ever-evolving theory and a vision of science fiction addressing such central questions as: What is science fiction? How did it develop? What is its value and importance in our lives? How does it fit into the big scheme of things?
The insight I came to after decades of reading, movie watching, and contemplation — one that serves as the starting point and guiding hypothesis for this book — is:
Science fiction is the most visible, influential, and popular modern form of futurist thinking and imagination in the contemporary world.
So aptly illustrated through my childhood experience with The War of the Worlds, science fiction is so popular because, in narrative form, it speaks to the whole person: intellect, imagination, emotion, motivation, behavior, the senses, and the self. It resonates with the personal, social, and cosmic; the natural and technological; the secular and the spiritual; and our values, ethics, and aesthetics, stimulating and enhancing holistic future consciousness. Readers and moviegoers are drawn into envisioning, feeling, and even acting out possible and often mind- boggling futures. Science fiction engages the total human psyche in the experience of the future.
I define "holistic future consciousness" as the total set of psychological processes and modes of experience and behavior involved in our consciousness of the future. It includes our hopes and fears about the future; our planning, our strategies, and our goals; our images and visions of the future, good and bad, utopian and dystopian; the stories we tell ourselves about where we are heading in the future, and our purposeful behaviors to create desirable and preferable futures and prevent negative possible futures from occurring. It is the total Gestalt of our experience and psycho-social engagement with the future (Lombardo, 2006a, 2011a, 2017).
Science fiction taps into all of this. It brings the future alive within our minds and our lives and personally draws us into the fantastical possibilities of tomorrow. Through science fiction, we feel and experience the future along all the dimensions of the human mind, creating "total person immersion" in our holistic consciousness of the future.
For many people science fiction has become a total way of life — a way of experiencing and creating reality, and in particular, a colorful and dramatically inspired future (indeed many different futures). In science fiction "fanspeak" the acronym is FIAWOL (Fandom is a way of life). Science fiction fandom and the global science fiction community is an immense, highly diverse, and continuously growing array of associations, groups, clubs, websites, and individuals, immersed in the gadgets, garb, iconic roles, imagery, art, paraphernalia, computer games, virtual realities, cinematic productions, archetypal characters, conventions and conferences, historical traditions, and literary works of science fiction (Clute and Nicholls, 1995; Encyclopedia of Science Fiction). This intricate and expansive reality has enthralled and captured a huge population, body and soul.
An excellent example of this global contemporary cultural phenomenon is the "Trekkies," comically and vividly realized in the central characters of the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory. Aside from their enthusiastic involvement in the Star Trek subculture, the main male characters, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Rajesh, are also active participants in the comic book/super-hero and video gaming subcultures, two other significant groups within the science fiction community. They live science fiction; they cherish it; they dress it. They collect memorabilia, posters, and action figures; they attend conventions; and they regularly socialize through science fiction game-playing, movie-watching, and TV- viewing. They dress in science fiction costumes (vicariously adopting the identities of science fiction characters). Sheldon adopts the garb of both Flash and Mr. Spock, the latter, at times, even haunting him in his dreams. Sheldon's ego-ideal, in fact, is a combination of Flash and Mr. Spock, a synthesis of speed, science, and intellect. It is a standing joke that Sheldon's friends think he is an alien. At times it seems that Sheldon believes so as well. (There is a similar puzzle also raised in the series that perhaps Sheldon is a robot, another science fiction archetype.)
Science Fiction as Futures Narrative
A big part of the psychological power and pull of science fiction can be found in its narrative form. Humans are psychologically disposed toward making sense of themselves and the world — and the universe as a whole — through stories. Through the narratives we tell ourselves, we give meaning, purpose, and drama to our existence; we create and evolve our personal identities through internal self-narratives (Damasio, 1999, 2010; Wilson, 2011). Societies create a collective sense of identity and vision of the future through shared grand narratives, encompassing and integrating past, present, and future (Polak, 1973; Lombardo, 2006b, 2017). Because science fiction is narrative in form, it naturally resonates with the deep narrative structure and dynamics of the human mind.
When it is done well, science fiction, as narratives of the future, can powerfully and effectively give our lives meaning, drama, color, and a sense of action, direction, and possibilities into the future. At a personal level, science fiction narratives about the future inform and inspire a way of approaching and creating the future. As one key illustration, science fiction has stimulated the inventive imagination of many of its readers, provoking real-life developments in science and technology (Disch, 1998).
A good story about a possible future, with its drama, action, and sensory detail, is psychologically more compelling and realistic than an abstract theory, ideology, depersonalized scenario, or statistical prediction about the future. An engaging and concrete narrative, involving sequential and causative action — a dramatic plot — brings a living presence and propellant energy to a vision of the future. This is how a possible future feels and how it goes.
Although not all science fiction deals with the future (an important point I consider later on), its primary focus has been on the possibilities of the future. In this regard:
Science fiction can be defined as a literary and narrative approach to the future, involving plots, action sequences, specific settings, dramatic resolutions, and varied and unique characters, human and otherwise. To a significant degree inspired and informed by modern science, technology, and contemporary thought, it involves imaginative and often highly detailed scenario-building and thought experiments about the future (and reality), set in the form of stories.
Science fiction narrative also personally draws us into a rich vicarious experience of the future through its vivid and memorable characters. We live the story through the characters' experiences and actions. Science fiction contains a host of unique and strange characters, admirable, villainous, and enigmatic, concretely realized and at times vividly described. We personally connect with them, or conversely are repelled, if not horrified, by them. The characters at times can provide role models; throughout the history of science fiction we find a rich and diverse assortment of memorable heroes, often possessing superhuman powers and unearthly abilities. Science fiction characters can be godlike, resonating with our highest ideals and deepest desires. Narrative characters give a story an emotional, personal charge, and due to their strange and extravagant qualities science fiction characters can stretch our sense of personal identity and purpose.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Science Fiction: The Evolutionary Mythology of the Future"
Copyright © 2017 Thomas Lombardo.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction to Science Fiction,
Science Fiction as a Way of Life,
Science Fiction as Futures Narrative,
The Future of Everything,
The Evolutionary Adventure of Science Fiction,
Resources on Science Fiction,
Chapter 2: Mythology and Science Fiction,
The Mythic, the Fantastic, the Scientific, and the Real,
The Value of Myth,
The Mythic Dimensions of Science Fiction,
Science Fiction versus Myth and Fantasy,
The Evolutionary Mythology of Science Fiction,
Chapter 3: Ancient History through the Middle Ages,
The Apollonian and the Dionysian and Ancient Greek Mythology,
Greek Science, Technology, and Philosophy,
Prometheus, Progress, and Self-Determination,
Lucian's True History,
The Fantastical and Futuristic,
The Divine Comedy,
Medieval Thought and The Garden of Earthly Delights,
Chapter 4: The Rise of Modernity,
The Age of Exploration,
The Scientific Transformation of Nature and the Heavens,
The Synthetic Genius of Kepler — Journeys to the Moon,
Utopian Visions and Technological Dreams,
Chapter 5: The Age of Enlightenment,
Western Enlightenment and the Theory of Progress,
Alien Visitations and Extraordinary Adventures,
Utopian Visions and Futuristic Fiction,
Chapter 6: Romanticism and the Gothic,
Romanticism and Romantic Science,
The Gothic: Horror, Mystery, Madness, and the Supernatural,
Grainville's The Last Man and Shelley's Frankenstein,
The Double-Edged Sword of Science Fiction — Hope and Fear,
Chapter 7: The Mysteries and Romances of Science,
Futuristic Fiction and The Mummy!,
Horror, the Gothic, and Science Fiction: Edger Allan Poe,
The Extraordinary Voyages of Jules Verne,
Chapter 8: Evolution and Science Fiction,
The Theory of Evolution,
Entropy and the Heat Death of the Universe,
Invasions and War — Evolution and Machines,
Chapter 9: Utopias, Robots, and Cosmic Journeys,
The Cosmic and Mystical: Camille Flammarion,
Visions of Future Utopian Societies: Morris, Bellamy, and Robida,
Steam Men, Robots, Fiends, and Thomas Edison,
Chapter 10: Adventures into the Solar System and Encounters with the Martians,
Across the Zodiac and the Canali of Mars,
The Great Romance and A Journey in Other Worlds,
Two Planets and Edison's Conquest of Mars,
The War of the Worlds,
Summary and Conclusion,
Preview of Volume Two,