Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Epiphany #4

I'm stealing one from my daughter.  It isn't the first time.

So we're walking out of Ender's Game, the film version of Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic about our civilization, having been nearly destroyed by an alien invasion, turning to brilliant children as the ones who can best strategize the ways to beat the aliens next time around (see current commercials with the tag line, "So Easy An Adult Can Do It" for verification of this thinking in relation to technology), and my daughter says, "Ok, Dad, but what's the basic flaw in this movie, like so many other science fiction movies?"

I think about it and come up with nothing.  "I don't know.  What?"

"Think about it.  The aliens want to leave their planet and inhabit ours.  Why would anybody want to do that?  This idea that our planet in the condition it's in is so desirable is ridiculous."

Well, okay, there are a number of ways to think about that.  First, her comment about this theme in science fiction is certainly true.  From The War Of The Worlds to The Man Who Fell To Earth, the alien desire to invade Earth for conquest, destruction, or, particularly, natural resources is a prevalent one, so much so that, at least in the back of our minds, we as a species carry a fear that someone or something out there may want what we have, or want us.

At the same time, our speculative writers offer the exact opposite idea: that our planet will become so crowded or polluted or just plain used up that we need to find other places to continue our existence.  In works as diverse as Wall-e and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, not only is mankind on the move, but also, it is only the unfortunate, leftovers from the technological Rapture who are still stuck here.

So which is it?  Is our world a prize or fool's gold?  And why does a bright young adult lean towards the latter--our planet as a place of future desolation?  When did the "unthinkable" become not an alien invasion, but instead the idea that any advanced species would waste their time on such a spent sphere?

I suspect that our children, who are likely seen as the most consuming, immediate gratification-demanding generation to come along, understand full well that their world of new toys and pretty things cannot last much longer.  Certainly global issues like population, poverty, disease, pollution, genocide, warming, extremism, and scarcity of resources are too ubiquitous to feign ignorance.  

Their reaction to those circumstances (fault them, if you must), seems to be to enjoy what they have while they can.  I hear our leaders sometimes telling them that it will be their responsibility to try to fix the things that we screwed up.  Has it been human nature to this point for them to say, oh, okay, we'll forego the pleasures you had so that we can serve the greater good?  Not in a capitalistic society anyway.

The key to Ender's Game is that the desperate adult world, to get compliance, taps into what children enjoy most--group play toward a goal with a chance to win prizes and admiration.  When it comes to this tired planet, our young people, on the other hand, may not initially see a game that they can win, or even worse, may believe that the game is already over.


Billy said...

Response #1: Perhaps this explains the explosion of dystopian YA fiction.

Response #2: We have about the same chance of properly drawing a picture of God as we do of drawing anything the first alien species we encounter. If intelligent life identifies our planet as desirable, it could be for reasons utterly irrelevant to what we perceive as important. Like sand, or termites.

My point is, while we should definitely weep for the havoc we've wreaked on our planet, we shouldn't worry too much that we'll have ruined the place for some future Battlestar Galactica.

Robert Berman said...

I agree, Billy. The prevalence of these dystopian disaster stories gives an important window into the anxious psyche of our society.

Alien invasion stories date back to Wells' War of the Worlds, which itself was a sci-fi version of a then-popular story genre about Red Dawn-esque invasions of Britain by various European forces. In the late 19th century, imperial England was having great success conquering less technologically advanced areas of the world. Wells turned things around and asked, "How would we like it if someone did that to us?" With no credible terrestrial threat to Britain, he made the invaders Martian.

Many authors have followed Wells into space, from the Cold War fifth column paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers right up to recent "aliens will fight us to get our stuff" movies like Independence Day and Pacific Rim. Explicitly or implicitly, War of the Worlds gets remade every couple of years even now. It's a central narrative of the 20th Century. Not to mention the many sci-fi stories (Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, and Aliens come to mind) that show the forces of Democracy not only weathering these attacks, but spreading throughout the universe, defeating enemies of justice foreign and domestic.

But now witness the rising tide of post-America disaster scenarios. Jericho. Jeremiah. The Walking Dead. Revolution. The Hunger Games. Terminator. The Matrix. Fallout. The Stand. I Am Legend. Planet of the Apes. Battlestar Galactica and Lostfit too. Even the Survivor reality show repeatedly explores what life would be like without all the niceties of modern Western life.

The combined mimetic weight of all these stories makes doom seem inevitable. As Bob's daughter astutely noticed, no aliens invade any of these worlds. Why would they? So they can run from zombies too, and squabble over the last Pop Tart in the universe? Life is better on Mars. As Neal Peart said, "Better people, better food, better beer. Why move around the world when Eden was so near?"