(…or why optimism in science fiction is not all that hard to find if you’re really looking)
What is it about so much of science fiction that drives writers and film-makers to grasp the pessimistic (dystopias, end of the world schemes, et. al.)? I think I’ve finally figured it out. Whether or not this is a conscious element is irrelevant, because it is almost always there, and it is perhaps the most optimistic thought, idea, concept, whatever you want to call it that might ever exist in any form of fiction you can find (and I have no illusions that this thing exists in other genres too). It is so powerful that it overwhelms when you discover it, when you see it buried underneath all the flashy images and the downright terrifying futures imagined by writers of all stripes. And if you’re like me, one of those weird folks that actually cries in movies, then it is something that drives you to tears, because it is beautiful and uplifting and tremendous in ways that you might never expect.
It is an amalgam of hope and perseverance, of spirit and resolve, of so many tiny things that exist in all of us, which we take for granted or ignore so often. It doesn’t really have a name, but you can see it come to life at the moment when all hope is lost, when you think that it might just be the end of a character, or our species in general, when humanity itself seems lost to its own devices (psychological that they are, they exhibit a kind of foreboding element that is both “proper to man,” as Derrida would say, and also terrifyingly destructive to the prospect of a salvagable humanity). It’s that flash that answers the question William Adama (of Battlestar Galactica) sadly recognizes: the question of whether we deserve to exist.
In an attempt to display this, I have to show by example. Maybe you cried at these moments too, or maybe you think I am being absurd, but they are moments that show us just what it is that makes mankind worth saving. We can see, in these little moment of science fiction wonder, what makes fiction and movies so powerful in our lives, and what makes science fiction so perfect at displaying the human condition at its worst and at its best, and in that moment where we know, deep down, there we really are something more than what we see every day (more than all the othering, hatred, death, destruction, mutilation, mutation, and terror that is the human).
Example One (from the end of Sunshine) – the Sacrifice
Everything has fallen apart. The attempt to resurrect the Icarus One so the mission to restart the Sun will have two shots has failed and a psychotic Icarus One captain has stolen aboard the Icarus Two after sabotaging the airlock. One by one everyone is dying and it seems like all hope is lost. Then Kappa vents the ship, stumbles to the payload for the Icarus Two after disconnecting it to start the launch sequence, and takes a crazy space walk (or jump, rather) to manually set off the fireworks, sacrificing himself and anyone else alive to make sure it gets done, while fighting off the crazed captain.
That’s it. That whole moment, with the music accompanying it. Maybe it seems trite, or silly, but in that moment I get that feeling that so much of science fiction is trying to give me: that even in the worst of times there is something redeeming about us, that our sad, pathetic little species can accomplish something so beautiful in the face of destruction and despair that everything pales before it. All that our minds can create (all that art, philosophy, intelligence, and technology) can finally come together in the face of humanity’s absolute negation (a human self that is at once all that is humanity and all that is destructive of humanity) to spark the beautiful moment of birth (a rebirth, literally, of our greatest god–the sun).
Example Two (from the end of Battlestar Galactica) – the Desperate Leap (or the Other Sacrifice)
Cut out the last half hour of the final episodes and imagine only the lead-up to the final battle and the battle itself, right up until the random jump to Earth (New Earth, Other Earth, whatever you want to call it). That’s where I’m looking to.
The Galactica is falling apart, literally, and yet there is something in the idea of Hera, of that little half-human/half-Cylon girl that Adama can’t let go. Whether she’s the future of humanity or Cylon isn’t relevant to Adama (not really), but it is what she stands for: she’s part of the crew, part of the ragtag gang of humans, and a piece of the very soul both human and Cylon, and a man like Adama cannot let a child, an innocent, be destroyed by the terror of the second-Cylon half (the Cavals, Simons, and Dorals).
So, he sacrifices half of his own heart, the Galactica, and the other half, Roslin, and anyone else willing to take the risk, to get Hera back. The whole idea is suicide, but that doesn’t matter. It’s about the greater idea: what they are sacrificing themselves for. The whole scene is astonishingly littered with what I’m trying to talk about here, this intangible thing that is optimistic even in the face of impending doom (and the Galactica is, or should be, doomed). The end is the moment when the line doesn’t dissolve, but begins to break; humans and Cylons are still separate, but it is here that we see both groups (the “good” Cylons, anyway) beginning to eat away at the line. United not just in a common goal, but in a goal to revitalize one’s soul, the merger in the fight for Hera signals an answer: humanity is worth saving. And the final second when everything is falling apart again, just when it seems that Caval can no longer be reasoned with? Well, how optimistic can you get when what seems like the crazed dreams of an unknown (Starbuck, that is, because nobody actually knows what she is anymore) can represent the last ditch hope for a failing humankind?
No, the end of Battlestar Galactica doesn’t resolve all of those tensions. It never could. We’re talking about the dissolution of a tension created by genocide. Scars like that don’t heal well, and in some cases don’t heal at all (particularly if we look at ourselves and all we’ve done with Apartheid and the Holocaust), but there is at least the promise, in the true merger of human and Cylon, that we are better for making the suicidal leap for something greater, something that makes us more than just human by birth. It’s a hope of a greater humanity (a non-humanity, since Battlestar Galactica imagines us, the present humans, to be part Cylon).
Example Three (from the end of The Return of the Jedi) – the Return From Darkness
Luke Skywalker is defeated by the Emperor. He lies on the ground and the Emperor strikes him with Force lightning over and over, electrocuting poor Skywalker to death. He calls out, begging his father (Darth Vader) to help him, even though everything up to this point indicates that Vader is lost to the Dark Side. There cannot possibly be hope, right?
But no, Darth Vader sees his son dying before him, and all that darkness inside his soul lifts, just for that moment, and he launches the Emperor over the balcony into the abyss of the second Death Star. He doesn’t do so unscathed, however: the Emperor’s lightning and the previous battle with his son, and all the emotional turmoil that has plagued the prodigal son of the Dark Side weigh in on Vader, consuming him. He cannot be saved, but it doesn’t matter, because he has already been saved, just by acting.
That’s the moment. You can call it the power of unconditional love, or maybe something deeper that resides in most of us (something that can break most of us even after being driven down by darkness for so long). It’s something that tells us that even if we are broken and weak, we are still capable of greatness, however small. Darth Vader’s rise from the depths is a testament to the power of whatever lies inside the human body. You can call it the soul or our hearts, or whatever; it doesn’t matter what it’s called, because whatever it is, it is powerful, and captures us on the screen and on the page in a way that it can wash away all the despair and sadness that we have endured before.
Darth Vader, in sacrificing himself, his place in the world, his hatred and anger for the loss of his love, and his twisted relationship with the Emperor, dissolves the line much like the end of Battlestar Galactica tries to display. He sends up a little glimmer of the kind of hope that keeps even the most desperate (and disparate) clinging to an idea. Vader regains that idea, and in doing so makes real Luke Skywalker’s idea of the father-that-would-be. There is no illusion that Vader can ever be returned, though, even if Skywalker assumes it to be true; instead, there is just the hope of redemption. Vader has that in the end, sacrificing himself for his son and the ideal of the Light Side of the Force.
I don’t know if I’ve made my point after all of the above. I wanted to get at something that is engrained in almost every science fiction story, no matter how dark, and something that you might see elsewhere in different forms; in science fiction this thing is almost always something so human and powerful that it casts an optimistic light on everything when it is seen. There are so many examples of this throughout science fiction and fantasy that it would be absurd not to have experienced it at least once.
That is what makes science fiction great, and that is part of why I love this genre so much that I am dedicating my life to it. Because it is a wondrous window into the best and worst of all of us, a gateway into the motivations, weaknesses, strengths, and capabilities of humanity.