Retro Nostalgia: Sunshine (2007) and Science Fiction’s Supreme Optimism


I’ve argued before that science fiction is a naturally optimistic genre.  One of the main reasons for this is the fact that SF almost always imagines a future in which we still exist.  While watching Sunshine, however, my position became more nuanced.  It’s not that we are still alive; it’s that we’ve survived.

Sunshine is one such movie.  Set in a future in which the Sun has prematurely begun to die out, humanity has been given the seemingly impossible task of jump-starting the gas furnace of the Sun and save Earth.  Impossible is an understatement, really.  It’s pretty clear from the start of the film that humanity has not progressed all that far from our present in terms of technology.  We’ve mastered a few more stages of spaceflight, put bases and communication arrays on the moon, managed to solve gravity issues on long-range spaceships, figured out how to maximize oxygen production, plant growth, etc., and built ships large enough to house multiple humans and to protect them from radiation, the Sun’s heat, and so on.  None of that should inspire confidence in our ability to control stars.

And as the opening moments remind us, this is more true than we can possibly know.  The first
jump-start spaceship, Icarus, disappeared on its way to deliver its payload, leaving us with the Icarus 2, which, we’re reminded, is the product of Earth’s now limited resources.  All of these facts are given to us in the earliest moments to remind us how dire the situation really is.

But they also tell us something else:  we’re survivors who can somehow manage amazing things in the darkest of times.  After all, we’ve survived plagues, viruses, weather, and all manner of obstacles thrown at us by our ecosystem.  And we’ve survived ourselves for centuries.  Sunshine is yet another reminder of this:  we are not dead from a nuclear war — as the Cold War Era thought we would be — or biological agents — human made or otherwise.  Rather, our obstacle is a seemingly natural one.  The Sun is dying and we’ve got to do something to fix that.

But the kicker is the solution:  impossible technology.  The energy needed to successfully jump-start the Sun should be beyond us — should be unattainable.  A science fiction trope if there ever was one.  But somehow we’ve managed it in Sunshine.

For me, the ability to imagine humanity beating the worst odds imaginable is a kind of optimism that cannot be outmatched.  It is only in darkness that we can see the light, as they say, and so it is with Sunshine, wherein humanity bands together to defeat the greatest of foes:  nature.  It doesn’t seem terribly important to me that the technology in this movie is largely imaginary — after all, how exactly are you supposed to restart a star with little more than what can be found on Earth and some almost-magical-hand-waving?  But that, to me, is a kind of optimistic notion, too — when handled correctly.  That humanity can, in a science fiction universe, discover the means to solve a seemingly impossible problem reminds us how remarkable humans can be.

Do any of you have the same feeling?

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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