Sunday, September 11, 2005

How 9/11 changed sci-fi

Rather than making a traditional solemn anniversary comment -- you can read those pretty much anywhere -- I thought I'd discuss something different.

9/11 drastically altered how the Western world saw itself and others. But what I find interesting is that the sci-fi genre, one which I would normally consider to be timeless, escapist, and therefore unaffected by current events, has also been subtly changed.

Books 5 and 6 of the Harry Potter series -- the ones written after 2001 -- can be read as commentaries on the present-day political climate. In fact, this thread sets out a few striking examples. Dolores Umbridge is like the bad Presidential appointee who won't go away; even when removed from Hogwarts, she keeps her place in the Ministry of Magic. Stan Shunpike, the Knight Bus driver, may as well have been sent to Guantanamo Bay, seeing as how his unfounded arrest was only made to allow the clueless Ministry to keep up appearances. The Weasley family locator, which I once mocked here, has now become a charmed variant of the color-coded terror alert. "Dire peril," indeed. And don't get me started on the Ministry's memo on how wizards should protect themselves and their family; apparently, I wasn't the only one looking for the words "duct tape."

The final installment of Star Wars is no different. While the original trilogy had no Nixonian influences I know of, and if anything inspired some of Reagan's politics, the newer trilogy was very much a product of George Lucas' worldview. Forget the name Nute Gunray for a moment, but notice this tool has slipped through the cracks of accountability like a true bureaucrat to stay in power. The Trade Federation is basically a highly empowered and politically embedded lobby, like Big Tobacco on the intergalactic level. By the second film we become aware of the rift between the Jedi and the Senate, which is basically analogous to the tenuous separation of church and state. And then there's Anakin:

"If you are not with me, then you are my enemy."

Could any leader in the real world be so brazenly simple-minded in delineating good from evil? Oh wait, ours did:

"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

And speaking of Dubya, isn't he a great character? I'm not alone in thinking that. Long-time reader Kristy warned me that in the recent Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, Sam Rockwell plays galaxy leader Zaphod Beeblebrox as a George Bush-type character. I've seen the film and I agree. In some respects it's a lazy shortcut in character development -- oh, we get it, rich kid gets plum job to society's detriment -- but it's damn effective.

Finally, I should mention this article which cites 9/11 as part of the inspiration for the new wave of sci-fi shows this fall TV season. It's interesting that not just the Law & Order shows can be ripped from the headlines.

The easy answer for why science fiction seems to convey a reaction to 9/11 is that its authors, much like anyone else, are affected by it. That it's a natural result of the adage "write what you know." I'm not satisfied. I think the reason 9/11 and the resulting war on terror have creeped into science fiction is because these recent events are like a fresh take on traditional sci-fi themes: clear victims, unclear villains with alien methodologies, ineffective leadership, sacrificial heroes, and the strange lure of mindless drones to a sinister cause. We're told the folks of al-Qaeda are bad, and that we should trust the forces of good to eventually put them away. The war on terror is a serious, complicated issue, and yet our President never treats it as such. He treats it like science fiction.

I'm just hoping the inevitable twist at the end works in our favor.


bdure said...

Zaphod as W? Impossible! Isn't Zaphod still a drunk?

Phantom Scribbler said...

"Haven't you heard? I come in six-packs."

K-Lyn said...

"Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."

Doug was always ahead of his time.

ApoloDuvalis said...

I agree with you. I think 9/11 shoocked americans in several ways and Spielberg's approach in "War of the Worlds" is a perfect example of how american society feels about its reality. In the same way 60's movies about alien-invaders was a reflection of the state of anxiety experienced during Cold War.

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