Wednesday, June 30, 2010

War: What Is It Good For?

War: What Is It Good For?
by Lisa Agnew

In these testing international times, when a portion of this world in which we live appears to always be at war, a perennial ugly question rears its head once more. What exactly is war good for? In anthropological terms, the answer is actually—quite a lot. In many ways, it almost defines us as a species. It is that endless quest for territory, access and influence. The bleak and cynical would also say that it provides a pressure valve for population control. In terms of fiction and science fiction, war is often the raison d'ĂȘtre. It can neatly unite opposing factions in the face of a greater foe. As a plot device, it almost unfailingly delivers believable motivation. The question I wish to ask the reader is this—should science fiction's long-term vision not involve far loftier goals than an endless playing-out of man's most basic, reptilian instincts?

Much early military science fiction was the result of the writers' actual experiences. Many of those writers highlighted the ultimate pointlessness of war or used it as an allegory of various episodes in history. As William S. Frisbee Jr. says on his website, "War is not about guns or bombs, war is about people." A large-scale conflict may be utilized as the setting within a story, but the characters are the reason for the tale's existence. However, during the past 30 years or so—a time that has seen the science fiction genre succeed in shedding its "pulp" associations and cross over into the realm of general consumption—the genre has also embraced the mythic archetypes of some of our oldest stories. These archetypes—the hero, the villain, the damsel or comrade in distress—are ideally fitted to military sf and, whilst their entertainment value is undeniable, they have, to a large extent, almost taken over the visual medium of the genre. Cinematic renditions of science fiction have dumbed the genre down to the point where it means little beyond this immediate and gratuitous entertainment value.

While many excellent science fiction books are still being written, how many of these books are actually being read by the people to whom they could conceivably make a difference? How many people in dire need of broadening their horizons actually pick up a copy of anything like Scientific American or National Geographic, let alone speculative fiction? How many folk out there would read Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the U.S.) were it not for the cinematic adaptation (if only to see why the critics unfavorably compare the film to the book)? Pullman himself seems worried at the direction taken by his genre, noting "that unless it does more to tackle moral questions it is in danger of becoming trivial and worthless. It has unlimited potential to explore all sorts of metaphysical and moral questions, but it is not doing that," His point is at the center of my argument. Military science fiction, in itself, can be informative and worthwhile but, when scope for a wide-ranging examination of all sorts of "metaphysical and moral questions" is present, why is it not explored to its fullest extent? Why are more movies of excellent science fiction books not made? They can be box-office successes—just look at 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In today's world, the truth is that if something is not hyped to death, those who may actually benefit from the exercise of their grey matter will not bother to look at it in the first place. Even Harry Potter did not become the phenomenon it is without being very well publicized. War is and always has been heavily hyped. War is easy for politicians to hype by playing on nationalistic pride and xenophobic fear. So the job of movie promoters and distributors is made that much easier.

Many people would not today entertain the notion of science fiction/fantasy as a viable mainstream genre were it not for those grand "us versus them" movies of the 1970s and earlier. If we examine such tales as products of their time, we discover that the war (or threat of war) portrayed within is an allegory of current or comparatively recent events. As an example, the film The Day the Earth Stood Still is fairly obviously an allegory of the "red paranoia" of those times, as is Fahrenheit 451 (book and film). Alasdair Spark points out in his essay "Science Fiction: This Time It's War!" that the Vietnam war is also a perennial favourite for re-hashing as a science fiction escapade. Spark notes the genre's remarkable ability to isolate and intensify elements of the war experience, and makes a good argument for the Alien series of movies as a particular case in point. So is it merely the idea of conflict that draws the crowds into the cinematic science fiction spectacular? Or do they see through the layers to that something deeper? With movies, we can almost certainly answer with the latter and, while this is understandable, it is certainly a cop-out.

True aficionados of our genre feel an urge to be in at the start of a phenomenon. That is their nature. They will go to the book store and actively seek out a new title. The remainder of the public usually waits for the movie adaptation. So, how does the science fiction/fantasy writer incorporate readability into their manuscript? God knows it's hard enough getting published and the reality is that gaining a movie deal is not paramount in most writers' long-term plan. War is often incorporated into the plots of science fiction books as a draw-card. It is something the general public understands and only the more established writers can afford to throw away this tried-and-true blueprint and explore other avenues. It can be argued that Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers set the tone for the militarism of the genre, though it can equally be argued that he was a writer of his times. So perhaps the 21st century is a time in which to begin exploring the premise that there may be worlds out there that have never been stained by this horror called war. It is only because of our particular evolutionary path that we find that difficult to contemplate. Perhaps some good science fiction writer can produce a book or a movie on the theme. Yet perhaps the constraints of our nature make it impractical. If one tallies up the number of Utopian novels versus the number of Dystopian novels ever written (not just by science fiction writers), the Dystopians outnumber the Utopians two to one. Yet dystopias have only caught up and overtaken the utopias in the past 200 years or so (coincidentally since about the same time that science fiction found a name for its format). So perhaps it is just another trait of our genre, mirroring traits of the species in general, which dictates that we prefer to explore the dark side of our natures far more than we wish to examine the goodness within. Or is it a case of wish fulfillment—reveling in the superior human hero triumphing over astounding odds and an inferior foe (as aliens are often portrayed)?

Using a formula of archetype plus dystopia plus conflict, we can conclude that the most popular science fiction story would involve a young, male hero joining a war to fight against an all-powerful, dystopian enemy. Sound familiar?

Where science goes, fiction follows. Or is it the other way around? These days there seems to be almost a symbiosis between the two. Science fiction writers like L. Ron Hubbard and the late, great Arthur C. Clarke have become immensely influential in their own right (in vastly different fields) by first imagining, then making their imaginings a reality. Gene Roddenberry envisioned much that now seems on the verge of coming to fruition. Roddenberry is on record as saying that "Star Trek is an optimistic vision that gives humanity hope for a better future." However, Star Trek also made good use of the "war as a plot device" theme (many of the writers were formerly active in the military, i.e. Gene Roddenbury, Gene L. Coon, Joe Haldeman). It is true that there have recently been a few attempts to imagine first contact with an alien species outside the realms of invasion and warfare. It has, however, taken writer/scientists of the caliber of Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan to imagine such scenarios—both writers with sound scientific bases behind their stories. Hopefully, their particular kind of vision will ultimately filter down into the general population. It is only as we discover more and more about the true nature of the cosmos that we have come to realize our Earth is not so unusual after all. Anything an alien civilization covets here can, in all probability, be found in abundance elsewhere. According to the Drake equation, planets of an Earth-like composition are probably far more numerous than planets of an Earth-like composition populated by any semblance of intelligent life.

So conflict is a theme that sells well; we all know that. However, war is conflict gone troppo. Movie producers and fiction writers profiteer from visualizing extremes. Has the time come for this paradigm to shift? Paradigm shifts are always slow to happen. Nobody likes change, it seems, not even in science fiction. Unlike other storytelling traditions, our genre, when done well, is at least capable of exploring the possibility of change. Indeed, by definition, speculative fiction is one of only a few modes of thinking really capable of the concept. So should we not rise to the challenge and begin once more to visualize brave new worlds, peaceful modes of living, interspecies co-operation? By concentrating on large-scale conflict, science fiction is mirroring reality. But surely that is why we have current event programs. Science fiction should certainly explore the motivations of a whole range of human behavior, yet the genre is limiting itself by becoming stuck in this trough of conflict. Now that we possess more knowledge with which to back our visions up, we can infuse stories with more that is futurist but at the same time believable, using the "hard" science fiction premise for more than just the space ships and laser weapons that littered the so-called "golden age" of the genre. I put it to you that the science fiction/fantasy aficionado is as much a leader in fields of thought as the philosophers, scientists, and theologians (and immensely more practical than the last of those three). The eclectic nature of our interests is what makes our range of imagination so vast. Perhaps there will always be a niche for militarist science fiction, but why limit ourselves to endless explorations on that old, tired theme of ingrained human aggression, a theme that has been around at least since we evolved into our present form?

* * *

Lisa Agnew was born in 1965 in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England, but is now resident in New Zealand. Her latest novel, The Overman’s Folly, is published by Altered Dimensions at Her first novel, Sword: Tales from the Green Sahara, is due to be re-published in the near future. She has written numerous non-fiction articles and also occasionally pens the odd short story. She lives in Auckland with her daughter, Caitlin.

No comments:

Post a Comment