Friday, July 17, 2009

The Lunatic Sleeps Again.

In an earlier post, I mused over the relationship between the moon landings and science fiction through the lens of the Futurama episode "The Series Has Landed." Remember? Yeah, that was fun.

Recently, Ted Gioia argued something similar, though he did it much more eloquently and using examples from Bradbury, Asimov, and Clarke rather than Groening. His point is that once the moon landing was achieved, the postcoital letdown of space travel's science proved equally detrimental to science fiction:
As space exploration disappeared from the front pages, sci-fi lost much of its glamour and most of its readers . . . With the conclusion of the Apollo program, NASA became just another government agency, more bureaucratic than heroic.

Gioia then compares science-fiction authors to stockbrokers -- no, really -- because both make predictions. I think this oversimplifies the difference between fact and fiction, especially since I'm not convinced science fiction authors are particularly concerned with being right about the future (though Gioia seems to think they are). When we watch Blade Runner or The Matrix or Minority Report or read Dune, which Gioia obviously holds in high opinion as hard science fiction from the Golden Age, we're not asking questions about the future so much as we're asking questions about the present. Our present, really -- ourselves. Science fiction then and now is really about what it means to be human: this is why it has aliens, for one thing, because they are ipso facto not human, and provide us an opportunity for defining what exactly human is.

I'm getting a little off-track . . . Another snippet from Gioia:
Science fiction is experiencing a bit of a
comeback these days, but the moon plays a
low profile in the renewal efforts.

Perhaps I would find this more convincing if the most recent science fiction film I've seen were not a little thing called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell and directed by Duncan Jones. It is deliberately low-budget, intensely psychological, and really, really good. (Seriously -- go see it!) Here the moon is no longer a fantasy, but an outpost, a cold colony of one trapped far from the warmth of civilization. And this suggests a new way for science fiction to treat the moon, a way more in line with the current dystopian trend in the genre.

Gioia's discussion of the collapsed lunar fantasy, it seems to me, has strong echoes of the way the exotic East (Arabia, China, Japan, India) has long been mythologized and fetishized in Western culture. The moon is feminine, it is the Earth's Other, it is passive and ocean-associated and romantic and there to be conquered by Western men. (No coincidence that in Moon deposits of Helium-3 are being imperialistically mined from the lunar surface for use powering the cities of Earth.) But plainly speaking, just as Orientalism has gone out of fashion, so we must find something new to do with the moon in our stories.

In fact, without giving too much away, what Moon seems to point to is the possible costs which underlie perfect ideas, whether it's endlessly cheap energy or your memories of a loving family back on Earth. A Fry-like sense of wonder and openness is necessary still -- it's the memory of that loving family that helps Sam Rockwell, um, do what he does (no specifics here) -- but the costs and consequences matter too.

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