Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Science Fiction Film Space Travel

Note: For the purposes of this post, I am using "Science Fiction" to refer to reasonably plausible scenarios. This includes what is sometimes called "Hard Science Fiction", but is not limited to that, as some minor bending of the rules of reality is acceptable in the interests of the story. Hopefully, what exactly I mean will be made apparent by some of my examples below.

I love Science Fiction movies. I also love Science Fantasy movies, but here I'll just talk about the former. First, my nominations for best Science Fiction movies of several decades:

1950-1959: (tie) Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still
1960-1969: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1970-1979: Alien
1980-1989: Blade Runner
1990-1999: Gattaca
2000-2009: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Of those, I'd say that the 1960s-1980s were the best time for Science Fiction film, and would count those three as far and away the best three of all time (in which specific order? That would vary depending on my mood, I think. Right now, Blade Runner is pretty much leading the pack).

Did you notice something about those? After the 1970s, spaceships are passé. Gattaca has a trip on one as the ultimate goal, Blade Runner mentions them almost offhandedly as something that other people go on, but they're pretty much removed from the table otherwise. Before then, anyone can go into space (with one exception). There's a stereotyped cook in the 1950s who makes bootleg liquor. In the 1960s, there are low-level receptionists on the space stations. In the 1970s, we're back to an updated version of the 1950s-era lowlife spacemen. After that, it's only the élite who travel beyond the bounds of gravity, if anyone does at all.

I've been kinda obsessing on this topic for the last few weeks, in the wake of the effective end of the USA's space program (yeah, yeah, they're working on another one - wake me when it flies, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it won't happen in the next decade or more; don't even get me started on the private space companies). Before we went, space was full of possibilities. Anything could happen, and we imagined so much.

Then we actually got there.

I will never denigrate the achievements of the Apollo program. Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth was, frankly, an absolutely incredible success. As I've learned more about rocketry and space travel in the real world, it has become more and more apparent to me just how amazing it was.

But, that success is leavened by the lack of anything of real interest to humans on the Moon. Sure, there's a wealth of scientific information that we should be glad we have, and there are potentially valuable resources if we can just work the bugs out of the devices that will hopefully use them. But there's not much that we can use now. We can't plant crops, because the Lunar soil lacks many of the necessary nutrients available in an organic biosphere, so we'd pretty much have to bring those with us. There aren't many useful metals that we don't already have in abundance on Earth. There are no organics, such as petrochemicals, at all. It's an expensive trip with little material return.

When we found that out, it seems, there was a drop in interest in space travel. Some visionaries tried to leverage concepts that would make space productive, but those haven't gotten very far. There are a few industrial processes that might be improved by microgravity, but that hasn't been proven yet. Microgravity might make a useful retirement community for the wealthy (who might desire the reduced strain on aging organs), but that isn't exactly "productive".

Basically, we've learned that space is mostly good for communications and observation satellites (possibly weaponized ones, as well, but those are currently agreed to be banned), which don't really need people. It isn't all that long until they plan to de-orbit the International Space Station, and that would pretty much be the end of space for humans. Sure, we might build another one, but we couldn't even build a new highway system at this point. We can barely maintain the one we already have. I think that we're done in space, and Science Fiction movies have been reflecting that, for the most part. There are occasional examples otherwise: Avatar, for instance, but those border on the realm of Science Fantasy (as, really, does Forbidden Planet. I make no claims to a foolish consistency, and one could dismiss this argument on that basis if one were so inclined. Keep in mind that the idea is that of "plausibility", which varies depending on the state of knowledge). Moon is the big exception, but it is an exception.

So, some other Science Fiction films I really like:

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)
Solyaris (aka Solaris, also remade as Solaris) (1972)
Outland (1981)
Escape From New York (1981)
War Games (1983)
Aliens (1986)
Hardware (1990)
Until The End Of The World (1991)
Strange Days (1995)
Hackers (1995)
Koukaku Kidoutai (aka Ghost In The Shell) (1995)
Abre Los Ojos (aka Open Your Eyes, remade as Vanilla Sky) (1997)
Banlieue 13 (aka District B13) (2004)
Children Of Men (2006)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
District 9 (2009)
Inception (2010)
Limitless (2011)

This is not, of course, a complete list, just what I can think of offhand. Also, I left out some after considering them (such as WALL-E and Paprika), as they went too far into the realm of Science Fantasy for what I am trying to discuss here.

What you see in all of those is that space travel is definitely something that becomes more uncommon with time, and more relegated to élites when it is present. Even Moon fits into this latter category by limiting its spacemen to one individual at a time, not having entire colonies with janitors, receptionists, store clerks, and so on.

For our games, this might mean that it is worthwhile to consider Science Fiction settings that don't include space travel. Even (perhaps especially) cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and realistic transhumanist settings might start to consider that we might not be getting off of this planet in any significant way.

Some time, I'll discuss the whole Peak Oil/Limits of Growth thing and how that affects this possibility.

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