Saturday, December 20, 2014

Noah Berlatsky laments that sci-fi stopped caring about the future, but he could have proposed we're witnessing a crisis of American colonialist imagination instead

It's not just Star Wars either. Science fiction is everywhere in popular culture, and it seems like it's managed to be everywhere in the present by largely jettisoning the future. The massive, major franchises are all decades-old; the triumphal rhythmic successes of Star Wars and Star Trek and Dr. Who vie with sporadic reboots of Robocop or Planet of the Apes. Even newer stories, like The Hunger Games or Divergence feel less like fresh visions than like re-toolings of stagnant dystopias. Poor George Orwell wants his panopticon back.

It's no accident that the most ubiquitous, overwhelming sci-fi sub-genre around is the one that has the least to do with the future: superheroes. Much of the superhero genre, in fact, is devoted to the fantasy that we don't need to wait for technological marvels, but can experience them right here, right now. More, we can do so, magically, without the comfy old familiar world we know changing that much at all.

Tony Stark invents new magical energy sources three times before breakfast, but he uses them mostly to punch Thunder-Gods in the head, rather than, say, to completely transform the world's technology and economy. Aliens land on earth, and rather than conquering England with H. G. Wells or forming an utterly new human race through tentacle-sex gene splicing a la Octavia Butler, they perform minor acts of altruism while taking their shirts off to reveal the pecs of Henry Cavill. Superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences, the future resolutely flattened by today.

This from the author who switched back and forth being saying Wonder Woman didn't need the Hollywood treatment and that she ought to have her own movie already may be a telling example in itself.  After all, why champion Wonder Woman as better than Batman or Superman if in the end superheroes are sci-fi wonders without consequences.  If they were just that then Wonder Woman could be counted as the first Mary Sue in the history of the comics genre.  Would Berlatsky take that route? 

What makes Berlatsky's piece on the failure of sci-fi imagination seem a bit specious is that it doesn't take THAT long to see that Berlatsky has thrown out the idea for us to consider that science fiction can be thought of as organically emerging from within a culturally colonialist imagination.

Reverse colonial sci-fi don't always have to be anti-imperialist, though. Ender's Game, both film and book, use the invasion of the superior aliens not as a critique of Western expansion and genocide, but as an excuse for those things. The bugs invade human worlds, and the consequence is that the humans must utterly annihilate the alien enemy, even if Ender feels kind of bad about it. Olympus Has Fallen runs on the same script, as a North Korea with impossibly advanced weapons technology lays sci-fi siege to the White House, giving our hero the go-ahead for torture, murder, and generalized carnage. In Terminator, as well, the fact that the robots are treating us as inhumanly as we treated them doesn't exactly create any sympathy. Instead, the paranoid fear of servants overthrowing masters just becomes a spur to uberviolence (as shown in Linda Hamilton's transformation from naïve good girl to paramilitary extremist). The one heroic reprogrammed Terminator, who must do everything John Connor tells him even unto hopping on one leg, doesn't inspire a broader sympathy for SkyNet. Instead, Schwarzenegger is good because he identifies with the humans totally, sacrificing himself to destroy his own people. Terminator II is, in a lot of ways, a retelling of Gunga Din.

Okay, let's not forget that The Terminator cropped up about a year after the start of the Strategic Defense Initiative, folks. Forget the historical setting of a James Cameron giving us a story of sentient machines designed by humans who subjugate humans as an in-the-decade complaint about what was potentially nothing more than a massive, crazy psy-ops operation (this was the decade in which non-Americans like James Cameron and Alan Moore were imagining some stupid cowboy president type could nuke the planet) and you will forget that sci-fi is always and only ever talking about imaginary futures as a way of addressing today. 

Cameron's Terminator franchise shouldn't be ahistorically interpreted as some timeless meta-historical musing on colonialism for the 21st century.  Anyone who keeps in mind the narrative rules of the world has to keep in mind that the terminators do what they're programmed to do.  It's only some kind of projection that lets us vicariously humanize the bot in the sequel when the bot was sent and did its mission.  It wasn't until Reagan stopped being in office and signs that the Cold War might potentially end in something other than nuclear oblivion that it became convenient, not to mention financially lucrative, to revive the franchise in a way that let Arnold play the good bot to his old bad bot.

Berlatsky's more recent piece is just going for low-hanging fruit of the most over-ripe kind.  There are obviously sci-fi stories being told and in light of his earlier piece he could have easily floated an idea--the continual revival of sci-fi franchises from the Reagan era and from the era of Kennedy and Johnson's New Frontier/Great Society epochs tell us something about what franchises have stuck around in American popular imagination, the ones in which the left or the right could imagine it still had both the moral authority and the clarity of vision to properly engineer a suitable future for the world.  These could be described as the franchises birthed in the period in which Americans could (and did) have some confidence about making the world a better place.  Want an example?  Let's go back to Star Trek.
... By viewing each of the original 79 episodes, Bennett and Meyer learned everything they could about what worked and what didn't. With changing times, they left behind the 1960s image of the U.S.S. Enterprise as a galactic Peace Corps bringing American-style enlightenment to benighted heathens on faraway worlds. Rather, what worked were elements that bolster the best screen science fiction by transcending the genre ghetto — an emphasis on storytelling over winky-blink hardware, character-oriented writing, plots that freshened up clichéd SF concepts, and gee-whiz spaceships and ray guns that existed for more than their own sake. Not every episode was first-rate stuff, to be sure. One can imagine Bennett and Meyer setting fire to their contracts while sitting through all those shitty third-season eps. But there were enough strong stories to make clear what girdered the show's stubbornly stalwart appeal to an audience still swelling more than a decade after the series' brief network lifespan.
But the flash of imagination doesn't have to be about optimism, per Planet of the Apes.  If evolution has no set trajectory it's possible for humans to evolve backwards into more barbaric and destructive times. 

If Berlatsky had the time (or the permission from editors? or interest?) he could have proposed that the failure of the sci-fi imagination in popular cinema is, perhaps at most, an American crisis.  It's not like Neill Blomkamp or Christopher Nolan haven't done some sci-fi films in the last four years but neither is American.  If Berlatsky wants to float an idea, how about this, the lack of creativity on the part of American pop sci-fi could be because of a failure inherent in colonial imagination.  We are no longer in a position where we can be sure that, whatever the future may bring, the future will be something we can engineer through the long-term effects of our policy.

Paradoxically, the genre Berlatsky says is least interested in imagining an actual future may be more rather than less relevant to the sci-fi landscape of popular American culture because the superhero genre tends to focus on the nature and proper use of power.  Berlatsky has championed Wonder Woman but depending on what you pick up from the 1940s comics the Wonder Woman of that comic was an unabashed champion of the American way no less than Superman.  Berlatsky may not care as much for Batman but in a post-Cold War era the superhero who recognizes that a great deal of corruption and evil exists within the United States is an easier sell than the two bonafide super superheroes whose advocacy for the American way as the ideal by which to light up the world has taken some hits.

After all, after so many decades we've had a chance to live past the times of the future imagined by the sci-fi past.  Stanley Kubrick's 2001 imagined a world in which American and Soviet ambassadors could play a verbal game in which neither acknowledged the existence of a monolith and by the real 2001 there was no Soviet Union.  Alan Moore's Watchmen imagined an essentially inevitable nuclear annihilation for the human race that "might" have been averted by the schemes of Ozymandias, yet the mass murder and deception were about to unravel in the final panels.  As Grant Morrison put it in Supergods, you the reader were shown that the secret was out by the end of the comic. Of course some might balk at precisely that moment in imagining that "breaking the fourth wall" was part of the design.

And yet decades later, in spite of the dour possibilities foretold by Moore or Cameron, we're still here. What if in the long run science fiction has never been about any real future but imaginary futures used to either party or panic about our present?  That seems more likely.  We might see Skynet or the Master Control Program or we might not.  And after so many decades do we think Voyager is going to return as V-ger?  Probably not.  One of the problems with sci-fi over the last half century is that it dates.  We know there was no one named Khan ruling a chunk of the planet in the wake of euguenics wars in the 1990s, for instance. 

If we keep going back to the sci-fi franchises where we either defeat the Galactic Empire or try to stop Skynet from destroying us maybe sci-fi isn't "moving forward" because it was never moving forward to begin with.  If Berlatsky wanted to stick consistently with the idea of sci-fi colonial imagination maybe he could borrow a phrase from Fukuyama and suggest that the crisis of science fiction in American terms is that we have reached a moment of the end of history, at least the end of a future "history" that we know we can write.  We're not the Great Society nation that could imagine sending out the Galactic Peace Corps of the Star Trek world anymore.  We're not the Reagan-era America whose Skynet obliterated or subjugated humanity.  If anything a lot of people have touted the internet as a tool for speaking truth to power and all that. 

The trouble with Berlatsky's pessimism is he only went half-way.  He could have probed a bit further and, beyond that, the problem with the half-way pessimism is he didn't get past it to see a basis for optimism, if American popular sci-fi can't imagine the future beyond what was imagined in the Reagan or Johnson/Kennedy era past then our inability to imagine.  If science fiction is the result of colonial imagination then the prevalence of the superhero genre, with its direct questions about the nature and ethics of power, may be exactly what we would expect for a colonial empire nearing the end of the possible futures it can imagine.  Perhaps a superhero story in which the superhero creates a massive surveillance system and only "wins" by capturing people and then lying to the public about the real techniques used to solve a terrorist problem only to discover that these makeshift techniques could not avert a pending disaster and crisis of collective moral action might be what we expect.  

In that way we can get a Captain America in the 21st century saying he heard "we" won World War 2 but he can't shake this feeling that maybe in the long run we actually lost.  In the wake of the Cold War Superman and Wonder Woman have receded because they represent Americas we not only struggle to believe in but that only had emotional resonance in an era in which we could more unabashedly affirm our belief in the United States as the morally superior culture.  Ergo Marston's Wonder Woman as a champion of America as the hope for women or Superman fighting for truth, justice and the American way.  By contrast, Batman kept battling evil within Gotham (e.g. New York, e.g. America) and the battle never ends.  In a post Cold War era Batman is the superhero who most readily lets us ask whether we "won" the Cold War and whether the moral cost of how we "won" wasn't far too high. 

If science fiction is an outworking of colonialist imagination and we're not imagining new futures in American science fiction that might be a reason to celebrate.  Instead of lamenting that the Star Trek revamp of Wrath of Khan is a reboot let's consider its innovation in Star Trek Into Darkness, that the Federation itself was fraught with imperialist and totalitarian temptations.  Retrofitting the naive optimism of Star Trek with an awareness of the essentially imperialist motives inherent in Roddenberry's vision isn't exactly a bad thing, it highlights the cultural imperialism inherent in the would-be optimism.  The trek into darkness wasn't a trek into the darkness out there on Klingon but into the darkness of the motives of people within the Federation.  Or, to borrow some lines from another franchise, if you don't die the hero then you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  If you think of it that way then Yoda went from being the lovable wise muppet of Episodes IV-VI to the arrogant, self-assured but ultimately incompent Jedi mob boss whose neglect led to the massacre of the Jedi council and the erection of the Galactic Empire.  Yoda might as well have called his policies The Jedi Patriot Act or something.

Whoever envisions that new future that ever actually takes hold may not be in the United States.  Given the likelihood that Berlatsky wrote one thing but an editor chose a trolling headline here's guessing that Berlatsky's think piece was just half-way to something else.  Wenatchee The Hatchet's playfully proposing that we should move past the reboots and revamps in general to see if there are any patterns about what gets rebooted or revived or kept around and why that might have been.  That America keeps coming back to the sci-fi franchises where we fretted about steering the world wrong or congratulated ourselves for steering the world right seems like a possibility to consider. 

If science fiction is an outworking of colonial imagination engaging the consequences of activity then perhaps the only best and brightest possible future for science fiction is for it to die off altogether as empires wane, wars cease, and there are no colonial empires left to impose their wills on the world ... but that's the point at which we've probably seen a shift past the apocalyptic imaginings of science fiction as science fiction and gotten back to the straight up 200 proof apocalyptic idiom of old school religious apocalyptic literature.  It's hardly a surprise if the optimistic future of Star Trek doesn't always seem fundamentally different from some of the idyllic visions of Isaiah 40-66. 

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