Terminator: Dark Fate and the Pitfalls of Nostalgia

The History of Things to Come

“The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged on for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future.

It would be fought here, in our present.


The wind whistles past piles of bleached human skulls, barely visible in the half-light, as the twisted ruins of a post-nuclear Los Angeles come into view. Laser fire splits the night. A VTOL aircraft of unfamiliar design wheels overhead, firing down on an unseen enemy; while a tracked war-machine rolls forward in its wake, crushing the last shreds of human resistance as easily as the bones beneath its treads.

This, as it turns out, is the best-case scenario. Welcome to 2029.

The Terminator franchise has been a hit since well before I was born, and for good reason. James Cameron’s original 1984 sci fi horror, with its inhuman, nigh-unstoppable antagonist doling out several slasher films’ worth of mechanical murder in pursuit of its target, is genuinely terrifying. From its opening moments to the climactic confrontation among the Terminator’s industrial forebears, the movie takes a uniquely modern fear of the machine — of being violently replaced by something which never tires, never stops, and which you can’t control  — and endows it with a terrible, singular purpose.

This machine can look like us, even sound like us long enough to get close. But it is not us. Underneath the veneer of muscle and skin lies cold, hard metal. Metal that requires neither rest nor food. It does not feel fear, or pity, or pain. It does not love. It sees the world in grids and lines, targeting reticules and data-feeds. It is the antithesis of our fragile, lonely meat. And it wants you dead. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s titular “cybernetic organism” is, quite literally, our fear given flesh.

This sense of powerlessness in the face of an unfeeling, unstoppable mechanism is reinforced constantly throughout practically every scene in the opening forty-five minutes. Shot after lingering shot and several significant match-cuts connect the world of ’80s LA, and particularly the machines in the film’s present day (far larger than any of the people operating them), with a future where our tools have turned on us. And you start to wonder when the roles actually reversed.

No one on screen, other than the Terminator, is ever in control of the world humans have built for themselves. The systems put in place to protect them and the weapons they try to do so with serve only to create a false sense of security. Firearms and appeals to the authorities or family for aid are, at best, costly distractions from the only useful thing anyone can do: run. At worst, they’re actively used against you.

Very little works against the T-101, though. Almost nothing Sarah and Reese throw at it does more than slow it down. Bullets and bombs both fail. Quick thinking and finely honed combat skills merely seem to delay the inevitable. The only thing that can kill this machine, in the end, is one of its own.

Sarah Connor survives as much through blind luck as through her own valiant efforts, or those of the man sent to protect her. She is the cleverest, most resourceful character in the story, working out that she’s being hunted the instant she hears about the initial phonebook murders on the news. After which she immediately hightails it to a very public place, picks up the phone, and attempts to both warn her roommate and get help from the police. It’s exactly what you might shout at the reassuringly-stupid protagonist in a slasher movie to do at the first sign of trouble. All it does here is put her and others in mortal danger.

Most of the time, our heroes do everything right they possibly can with the information they have. Yet still the “Mother of the Future” barely gets out alive — as traumatised as Reese by the time the credits roll, and on the run for the rest of her days. Reese, for his part, is dead. Everyone else we met along the way is also either dead or in a holding pattern for the apocalypse.

The conclusion is clear from the get-go. Humanity as a whole, and by extension the audience, cannot win this round. For any of the events on-screen to happen, the world we know must end in nuclear fire. The most anyone can do until Judgement Day is fight a desperate rearguard action to ensure our survival after the balloon goes up.

We are told that the machines are close to defeat in the future, assassination their final gambit. But before our victory can be secured, billions of people have to die. It is inescapable. There is a storm coming. The history of things to come has already been written. What sliver of hope does exist for our species rests on the shoulders of a lone woman and her unborn child.

Not exactly a feel-good ending, is it? The Terminator is a tale of tenacity in the face of impossible odds. It is about dealing with the inevitable and doing what you can with what you have, when sometimes all you can do is simply refuse to die.

No Fate But What We Make

“The future’s not set. There is not fate but what we make for ourselves.”

Terminator 2: Judgement Day takes a dramatically different approach. Cameron decided to change things up for the sequel, and switched from horror to action. In so doing, he flipped the script on its head.

As with another genre-defining movie of his, Aliens, what had been a tense, visceral experience with body-horror straight out of The Thing the first time round became an emotive, entertaining, comparatively upbeat rollercoaster ride. It’s an effective change, and certainly makes the movie more fun to watch. The cast is much bigger, as is the budget, and there are many more explosions. The janky stop-motion Terminator skeleton of the first film is replaced with a sleek, liquid-metal foe that’s still impressive for 1991 CGI.

The writing remains top-notch too. James Cameron has never been accused of subtle storytelling (Unobtanium, anyone?), but the man knows how to spin a satisfying yarn nonetheless. From the first shots of the reprogrammed T-101, which the audience don’t yet know has been sent to protect rather than kill, T2 turns its predecessor’s cinematic language and messaging upside down.

Where in The Terminator the camera movements, score, and framing instantly made us aware of the threat Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscular form posed even when naked, its sibling takes a more playful attitude. The camera moves between the cyborg’s perspective and a surprisingly egalitarian gaze, lending both the obvious power fantasy and its star’s physical beauty an at-times comic effect. The violence is less extreme, and while people do get seriously hurt, no one dies. He beats up some bikers, sure, but he doesn’t put his fist through a guy’s chest this time, or project the same palpable menace as before. This is played for a certain amount of levity as well — Arnie’s robotic delivery makes the most mundane of one-liners memeable, and his opponents are hilariously inept in a fight.

Everything about this new Terminator, from his initial appearance through to having acquired those iconic clothes, boots, and motorcycle, tells you he’s a different breed to the cold, implaccable death-machine of the first movie. This is confirmed when we cut to another time-traveller appearing naked in a ball of light, and the cinematic language inverts, telling us before we see him do a single thing that this new character is dangerous. We don’t actually witness him murder the first person he encounters, but it’s a safe bet.

Still, for all the audience knows based on the pattern established in the original film, the T-1000 is the good guy. It doesn’t feel that way though. Cameron uses the same initial structure, having the T-800 appear first and displaying the harm it can do while giving us little information about its opponent, to arrive at a diametrically opposite effect.

There are no shots of looming machinery or a general sense that our tools are beyond our control, no PTSD flashbacks to a future where humanity has finally been swallowed by our grand systems. John Connor is introduced to us as a child, using technology to achieve a level of freedom and control over his life previously reserved for his mother’s would-be assassin. This, unsurprisingly, establishes a central theme of the movie. Machines aren’t purely a threat anymore, they can be controlled. They can be helpful. They can even learn to love.

The idea that something inhuman could be more humane than any human being is one James Cameron has spent decades dissecting. In Aliens, for instance, he directly addresses Ripley’s (completely understandable, based on her experiences) fear of androids, and a large part of her character arc is learning to trust Bishop. As it turns out, he’s critical to her and the other characters’ survival. In the two years between the The Terminator and Aliens, Cameron seems to have changed his mind.

With T2 we see this exploration come to fruition and animate every aspect of the production. Like Ripley, Sarah Connor has to get past her own trauma and justifiable hatred for artificial intelligence to succeed, and learns not merely to trust the machine that almost killed her but comes to see it as a potential father for John. This isn’t subtext either, it’s right there in the dialogue. In a soliloquy perfectly mirroring the terrifying description of the original T-101 Reese gives in The Terminator, Sarah muses that:

“The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. It would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

We are, throughout the movie, meant to empathise with John, who — whilst he has been told of the havoc a Terminator can wreak — has no first-hand experience of it. He has little reason to fear, and his first encouner with the machines out to kill him ends with one saving his life. The T-800 very quickly becomes the strong, protective father-figure he’s always wanted, and stays that way until the credits roll. From John, the emotionless machine learns to feel, and gets more and more human as they bond over the course of the story. Dogs do not bark at him as they once did, and still do at his more advanced replacement. The Terminator is no longer an “it”, as John says in as many words, but a “he”. A person. One who grows more in a day than many humans do their whole adult lives. By his final, poignant descent into hot steel, not only has this death-dealing machine learned the value of human life, but he understands why we cry.

Where in 1984 we were presented with humans struggling against the inevitable, unstoppable embodiment of technological terror, by 1991 Cameron has the audience rooting for a robot.

He takes a different attitude to the systems around us as well. Instead of being crushed by the unstoppable, grinding progress of machinery of which we are only a tiny part, here we have the power to stop it ourselves. It might mean throwing our bodies on the gears, but we do have a chance.

The Connors and their friendly T-800 aren’t just pursued by the new and improved Terminator, they’re enemies of the state. The T-1000 uses the power of the militarised US police to hunt John Connor, and law enforcement are upgraded from a bumbling, misguided, but fundamentally well-intentioned hinderance to a consistent threat throughout.

Sarah Connor has become a gun-running bonafide badass since we last saw her, desperately trying to prepare John for his future role as leader of the resistance. But she starts the story locked away and treated like a lab animal by the friendly psychologist from the first movie, hated by the son she tried to protect for being “a psycho”. Meanwhile, she’s been abused and further traumatised by everyone with the power to help her, upon whom she later takes appropriately brutal vengeance. It’s clear this movie has a problem with authority.

That said, it doesn’t follow its logic to quite the same place as before.

Cameron isn’t so down on the rest of humanity as he was seven years prior, and it’s not like the police are acting particularly illogically in the situation. From their perspective, they’re chasing a group of domestic terrorists responsible for a swathe of death and destruction. Everyone except John and his mother, who have good reason to fear them, trusts the cops. They might end up dead for it, but always at the hands of the liquid-metal Terminator in disguise and not (as is way too common in reality) actual agents of the state. It’s depicted less as a flaw with their view of the world, or the normal functioning of society, than as a situation which they were never prepared to handle.

The T-1000, and even Skynet itself, are by and large presented as rogue elements in an otherwise functional system rather than its inescapable conclusion. Skynet, after all, only exists because Cyberdine are developing technology it sent back in time. There is no reference to the “defence mainframes” of the first movie, with their roots in Harlan Ellison’s vision of heuristic armageddon. Without actively changing the past to create their own future, the machine uprising ceases to be a possibility. It was never inevitable.

Hell, the scientist who is to be responsible for the end of the world joins forces with the Connors to save it, at the cost of his own life. T2’s Dyson is not an Oppenheimer or Fermi (“the men who built the hydrogen bomb” as Sarah puts it) pressing forward with no regard for the consequences. In spite of the financial and professional incentives not to, he listens to our heroes, believes what he sees, and ends up destroying his own work. There’s not a moment of hesitation. As soon as a good man in the right position understands what’s going on, he takes decisive, heroic action. And he, along with our plucky band of protagonists, succeeds.

T2 reframes the central statement of its older, darker sibling — “We are destined to destroy ourselves” — as a question. One it ultimately answers with, “there is no fate but what we make.” Now, the sole thing that can take down a rampaging machine is humans in true command of our own technology.

It’s a far more positive message than the first film. It’s reassuring, warm, comforting. Against all odds, we actually won. The world doesn’t have to end! This is directly stated in the closing voiceover, with Sarah Connor expressing hope for an uncertain future in which “if a machine can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too” — the polar opposite of its predecessor’s gathering storm. In less than a decade, we went from barely surviving the inevitable apocalypse to cancelling it outright.

There’s definitely something to be said for how the end of the Cold War, and the sense of newfound freedom from not living under the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, influenced the writing of Terminator 2. The world was a much scarier place in 1984 than 1991, and the danger was all too real. A lot of media from that time channels this atmosphere of impending doom. It’s natural that, once the obvious danger receded, we would see a movement towards more upbeat stories. But I have a feeling Cameron had already decided we weren’t all going to die before then. His work in the intervening years speaks to a sea change in the way he saw technology and how we use it. By the ‘90s he seems to have decided that, if the right people wield power in the right way, we can be safe.

A Future that Never Happened

The first two Terminator movies fundamentally disagree with one another, using a similarly structured story and many of the same themes to arrive at entirely different conclusions. It’s a testament to the director’s filmmaking chops, and a major reason the sequel feels so original even three decades and innumerable imitations later. It’s also why all the subsequent movies failed as spectacularly as they did. None of them wanted to address the central question of the franchise.

This is where we come to Terminator: Dark Fate, and why I ended up writing this piece in the first place (other than a desire to ramble about two of my favourite films for a few thousand words). The other day, I stumbled across a review of the latest instalment in the franchise, made by someone who was clearly a huge fan of the series. By his account, it’s not technically a bad movie, but rather a functional remake of Terminator 2 made all the worse by being a pale imitation of the original. He was, to say the least, painfully disappointed. He’d been led to expect better of it; he wanted something new. After the trainwreck that was JJ Abrams’ latest assault upon Star Wars, I thoroughly empathised with his dashed hopes for a better conclusion to a beloved franchise. So, not having seen Dark Fate and always up for some good, old-fashioned cinematic rubbernecking, I immediately found and watched it.

In the event, I ended up pleasantly surprised. I went in braced for, well, a Terminator 2 sequel. After three prior attempts to follow up James Cameron’s classic turned out as spectacular failures, my bar was set pretty low. Dark Fate managed to clear that on the basics, at least. It’s really not a terrible film, and it does make gestures towards trying to say something relevant to the modern world. It also smartly does away with any of the events of the previous sequels, and soft-reboots the franchise by having another T-101 kill John Connor “acting on orders from a future that never happened” right at the start. Unfortunately, just as with T3, Salvation, and Genisys, it can’t decide which story it wants to tell. Are we inevitably doomed or aren’t we? Are our systems fatally flawed or do we just let the wrong people control them? Unlike those films, that isn’t because it’s a sequel.

The problem with Hollywood sequels has been well-documented for a very long time. The pattern goes like this: A new movie comes out, it’s original and good, and it’s successful. Then, to try and repeat that success with a now-popular IP, a sequel gets greenlit. Usually, this turns into a straight retread of the first, with the writers, director, or studio unwilling or unable to deviate from what worked in the past. The near-universal solution to “what happens next” under these circumstances is to do the same thing again, but bigger and with more money behind it. Sometimes it works. More often than not, it produces the cinematic equivalent of very expensive fanfic (not that there’s anything wrong with fanfic; I just want more out of a trip to the theatre).

(Side-note: The Hammer Horror Dracula series is a fascinating example of just how far a franchise can fall down this slope before it hits bottom. Check out The Satanic Rites of Dracula if you really want to go spelunking.)

James Cameron seems to be uniquely talented at avoiding this trap, able to keep his work fresh by switching up the genre between movies. But less-gifted filmmakers fall into it all the time, especially with the Terminator franchise. To be fair, Cameron did try to save them the trouble. When a movie slams the door as hard on sequels as Terminator 2, failure is almost guaranteed.

But money talks, and so we got four sequels to a story that wraps itself up very, very neatly. The future might be uncertain for Sarah Connor and her son at the end, but you know — and she says — it will not contain Skynet. Judgement Day will never come, because they stopped it.

Three stories about Judgement Day coming regardless later, we’re treated to one in which it initially appears not to have happened. At least not in a way the audience would recognise. The first lines of the film confirm it never occurred. In voiceover, Sarah tells us so. Skynet does not come online. It’s never built. Dark Fate’s malevolent future AI, Legion, is later revealed to have grown out of a cyberwarfare program that went rogue. A different tool of the military-industrial complex gone awry. Her response on hearing of its origins is a world-weary “they never learn…”, indicating that while she may have stopped an apocalypse, she’s under no illusions as to our propensity for self-destruction. The movie seems to agree with her, and presents its armageddon as inevitable. But here, unlike past instalments in the franchise, the one she stopped stays that way.

This future’s version of the apocalypse is slower than the original, too, with Legion simply turning off the power and letting us beat each other to death before rolling out the robots. The world ends with more of a whimper, though there are still plenty of nuclear bangs. It’s a timely update of the “defence mainframes” of the first movie, and one unreliant on the existence of Skynet. So far so good for the theme of our inevitable doom.

Then about two-thirds of the way in, Grace, the “augmented human” (we’ll get to that later) sent back in time to save the future mentions Judgement Day, and that thread goes off the rails. For context: she’s the character whose job it is to explain the stakes, and lay out the history of things yet to come. The apocalypse she describes is absolutely not an event anyone who lived through it would refer to as Judgement Day — for one thing, it happens over multiple days. More importantly, the phrase “Judgement Day”, in the Terminator franchise, means one thing and one thing alone. It is never used as a general reference to the end of the world, as it is in our own. It is capitalised every single time someone mentions it on-screen. You can tell. No one who doesn’t know what it means ever uses it. And it always refers to the apocalypse brought about by Skynet.

The entire premise of the movie, the reason that any of it happens, is that Judgement Day never came. Something else did. The only reason for Grace to refer to the end of her world as Judgement Day, in this story, is because the audience know what it means. She does not. It feels like the writers glancing over at you and winking, a reference for the fans. It is diegetically nonsensical shorthand that obscures more than it illuminates. All for a momentary frisson of recognition, of nostalgia. Honestly, in this case it’s so small and offhand I don’t think they even realised they were doing it.

It is by no means the worst or most glaring example of Dark Fate trying to lean on its better forerunners and falling over in the process. An out of place “Judgement Day” is subtle, and pretty inconsequential, but it’s representative. Because it’s constant. Terminator: Dark Fate isn’t just a retread or soft-reboot of Terminator 2 with nothing new to say, as the fellow who put me onto it suggested. No, it’s much worse than that. It’s a two-hour-long string of references in the shape of a movie and it’s trying to say something anyway.

If it seems like I’m being unkind, I am a little. It’s not badly put together or particularly terribly written, and any production made by flat-out copying one of the best action films ever (but with a bigger budget and modern CGI) is going to have at least something to recommend it. And it does! It’s entertaining, and a good ride if you set your expectations to “brainless fun”.

The thing is, Terminator has never been about brainless fun. To their credit, the filmmakers appear to have understood this and tried to find ways to grasp at originality in the varied settings and the trappings of the story. John Connor is a girl called Dani now! And Mexican! Look, we’re having them sneak across the border! Oh no, they got captured and are in a concentration camp! The new Terminator is disguised as an ICE agent, not a police officer, and the saviour from the future is a human with machines in her! What about drones, eh?! And hey, Arnie’s back again, but he learned to be good on his own and has a loving family! Look! Politics! Themes! We swear!

Unfortunately, it never gets to expand on any of the concepts implied by its settings, new characters, or the situations they find themselves in. There isn’t time to explore what, say, the merging of human and machine in Grace means for humanity’s future, or why they don’t upgrade all their soldiers (because she’s definitely not the only one). We don’t get to see more than a couple of minutes of T-101’s wife and adopted son, or really understand why this Terminator learned to be a person for them. We’re just told that he did. It’s too concerned with getting to the next reference, the next moment the audience will vaguely recognise. There’s no depth to any of it, just a bunch of ideas with no room to breathe.

From the first scene to the last there’s a slavish devotion to recreating every single memorable moment of Terminator 2. Enough details are changed so the sleight of hand might not be immediately obvious if you haven’t seen the original in a while, but with it fresh in your mind the seams are unmistakable. Certainly, no fan would miss them. I could go through a list of moments and shots that are pretty much exact copies, but it’d take far too long. The entire thing is built around them. The worst part is, it’s not a bad movie. If it were bad, it’d be easy to dismiss or laugh at. This? This, we have to talk about.

Letting the Past Die

Watching Terminator: Dark Fate is a frustrating experience. You can almost see the much better movie hiding in the margins, struggling to get out. It has a lot to say around the ballgag it’s decided to wear, but never gets around to doing more than gesturing towards the points it wants to make. It’s silenced by a suffocating, pervasive nostalgia.

The first Terminator is a terrifying exploration of our fear of the machine, and of our inevitable extinction. Rewatching it for this piece, I was struck by the weight of each shot, the amount of meaning crammed into every scene. James Cameron clearly had a lot of thoughts about how we use technology and how it uses us in turn. He was also deathly afraid most of us weren’t going to be around in the not-too-distant future when making it. The movie conveys that terror perfectly, and actively engages you in a dialogue about it. It’s a truly frightening depiction of the fears of its age come to haunt your nightmares and make you look askance at your iPhone.

Terminator 2 takes those concepts and reinterprets them for a more idealistic era. It’s a classically (relatively) optimistic ‘90s action romp, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It’s tense, touching, and hopeful in equal measure, not to mention exciting and incredibly well shot. And it manages to make you damn near cry over a scary death-robot you would have been glad to see a pile of scrap two hours earlier. There’s a reason it’s the one everyone remakes.

Dark Fate so badly wants to be Terminator 2 it hurts. Every Terminator movie since 1991 has, to be fair, but Dark Fate doesn’t want it in quite the way the previous ones did. Six films into a franchise and almost thirty years later, it’s impossible to recreate the success of such a definitive work with a standard sequel structure. They tried that with the third one and it did not end well. Instead, they went with a Star Wars-style soft-reboot, and it hamstrung them in a very similar way to both The Force Awakens and Rise of the Skywalker.

Now, Terminator is not Star Wars. They’re very different beasts, and you generally shouldn’t judge them by the same yardstick. Star Wars is science-fantasy, with laser-swords, space-wizards, and Dark Lords. It is not sci fi, it’s not trying to hold a mirror up to anything. It’s just there to show you a good time and tell a fun, entertaining story the shape of which you’ve seen a million other places. The good guys win, bad guys lose, and all is right with the galaxy at the end. Terminator is about as far from that style of storytelling as you can get.

All the same, right now both franchises suffer from a similar issue. And it’s having comparable effects on the way their movies come out, as well as some of the specific problems they share. Neither can get away from their former glories.

It’s particularly noticeable with Star Wars, where the nudge-nudge wink-wink across the fourth wall is rendered so important as to justify bringing the experience to a screeching halt every time it happens. You can practically see the buttons they’re reaching for. It’s jarring, but not quite to the point of distress, with The Force Awakens. And much as I love The Last Jedi, it is admittedly guilty of this at times too.

In Rise of the Skywalker, we see this trend reach its apotheosis. It more or less drives the entire plot. Everything revolves around getting from Nostalgia Button A to Nostalgia Button B via a nonsensical rollercoaster of exciting, meaningless visuals. It practically becomes a slideshow at one point. None of the extremely consequential events in the story have any weight, or any time to breathe between set-pieces. Nothing feels like it matters. Aside from the questionable plot decisions and uncomfortably fast pacing, the main factor dragging JJ Abrams’ conclusion to the Star Wars saga down is a bad case of nostalgia mixed with a strange species of fan-service. Can’t not give Chewie a medal, can we?

Terminator: Dark Fate feels very similar to Rise of the Skywalker in that, although it’s admittedly a better film on just about every level (not that that’s saying much, but credit where it’s due), it refuses to move on. Therein lies the frustration. Because its core problem is that it can’t shake off the straitjacket it’s donned, unable to say what it wants for everything it forces itself to repeat. The writers tried to update a classic for modern audiences, adding in a sprinkling of new ideas to keep it relevant, and all they managed to do was make you wish they’d had the courage to give those their own movie. The action on-screen is explosive, and fun to watch, but ultimately even that ends up as a series of elaborate references.

You can glimpse the potential for a more interesting story straining at its old, ill-fitting bonds. The ideas are all there, it just won’t use them. It’s too busy reminding you of what you already liked. Were I an ardent Terminator fan hungry for something new, or expecting it for that matter, I’d have likely been quite upset.

It’s sad, and illustrative of the insidious ways chasing nostalgia can wreck otherwise competent work. Ironically for a story about unstoppable killer robots from the future, for all it tries so hard to seem novel, Dark Fate can’t escape its past.

A tip for screenwriters: Let the past die. Terminate it if you have to.

Gravity Is Not Science Fiction, but It’s One Hell of a Ride


At this point, to review Alfonso Cuaròn’s masterpiece, Gravity, would be redundant. Pretty much everything there is to be said about it – awe-inspiring, hopeful, terrifying, beautiful, and so much more – has been said by reviewers far more successful and talented than myself. Suffice it to say that I’ve never seen its like before, and will be digging my fingernails from my thighs for weeks to come. If you don’t go and see it in the cinema, you will be doing yourself a disservice.

Much has also been said about its indebtedness to prior movies set in space, almost all of which are science fiction. As a result of its influences and setting, the film itself has been categorised by a number of critics as such. It’s even been dubbed a “space opera”, which sounds somewhat odd to anyone who’s ever actually read science fiction. It’s an understandable mistake to make, but a mistake nonetheless. Gravity is a disaster movie, a drama set in space.  It is not science fiction.

Sci fi takes improbabilities and impossibilities, asks us to suspend our disbelief, then uses those scenarios as a mirror for ourselves and our society. Gravity, on the other hand, presents a clear view of human response to adversity in a physically distant but completely plausible scenario.  There is no suspension of disbelief required, partly as a result of Cuaròn and his team’s virtuoso filmmaking, but also because of the sheer humanity and connection Bullock’s performance establishes between the audience and her character. Here, there are no grandiose themes except as background, the film does not concern itself with issues or ask the Big Questions in the way science fiction so often does. The question which animates and drives tension throughout the film is “can she make it back home?”

The stark message which precedes Gravity’s balletic opening 12-minute shot is that “Life in space is impossible.” And it conveys the cosmic awe and almost surreal beauty of our unforgiving, Newtonian universe better than any film to date. There is the constant sense of wonder there too, and terror, not only at the life-threatening situations its heroes find themselves in but also at the obviousness of their insignificance – and the insignificance of our pale blue dot with its fragile atmosphere hanging suspended in the night. Even faced with oblivion and drifting into the void, George Clooney’s jetpacking Major Kowalski wonders at the beauty of the sun on the Ganges.

Its sense of awe and wonder at the unforgiving beauty of space is as universal as the journey of suffering, struggle and redemption at the centre of the plot. It’s a feeling captured best in another recent film, The Europa Report, which tells the story of a manned, privately-funded mission to the eponymous moon of Jupiter. As you’d expect, disaster strikes; but the most surprising thing about the film is that, like Gravity, in the end it is profoundly uplifting. Despite all the terror, death, and destruction depicted, the furthering of our innate curiosity and wonder at the universe is something to be celebrated. It’s what makes it all worth it.

This celebration of the wonder of space exploration, whilst acknowledging the existential terror of being separated from the only home we’ve ever known, cast adrift into the black airlessness surrounding it, is something Gravity shares with much science fiction across many media. It is never a question of whether they – or we – should be up there, but of how we can overcome the adversity inherent in that exploration. Like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, like Kubrick’s 2001, like Tarkovski’s Solaris, it’s the journey, what we see and learn along the way, that counts.

So Gravity is not science fiction. But it stands upon the shoulders of giants like Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Cuaròn even acknowledges his debt to Scott in the credits). The tension it elicits between the incredible grace, the beauty of earth hanging in George Clooney’s visor and the violence of debris ripping apart our tenuous footholds beyond the earth’s atmosphere sums up our relationship to the manned investigation of the cosmos. It might be dangerous, it might even kill us, but the view is incredible.

Science Fiction’s Queer Problem

Never let it be said that Stonewall aren’t pushing for marriage equality everywhere. Kronos included.

Sci fi has a problem with gay and lesbian characters. This is especially true of TV science fiction, but print is almost as guilty, and most games with a sci fi flavour are exercises in testosterone-fueled head-stomping (which, while good fun, does not generally make for nuanced or diverse characters). I can probably name on the fingers of maybe both my hands the number of gay or lesbian characters I’ve come across in the genre as a whole, across all media. For a category of fiction predicated on imagining worlds stranger than and off at an angle to our own, it seems a rather glaring failing to exclude the minority aspects of human sexual identity from the vast majority of its stories. With a few notable, excellent exceptions, gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters are simply not present in science fiction. And that’s a problem.

There’s a throwaway exchange in an episode of that wonderful, short-lived, and much loved space Western, Firefly, which provides a very good example of this issue; not in itself, but in the reaction it engenders in its gay and lesbian viewers. Mal Reynolds (the captain of the eponymous smuggling ship and its crew) and a brothel madame whose house he’s agreed to defend during the course of the episode are flirting over some very pretty handguns, when she asks him if he’s “sly”. To make the neologistic slang perfectly clear to the audience, she quickly follows with “…’cause I’ve got my boys…”, making it equally clear that being “sly” – i.e. gay – is simply a fact of existence even out there on the rugged frontier of the far-flung future. It’s merely an explanation she suggests for Mal’s standoffishness, and a potential business transaction. The avowedely heterosexual Captain is of course quick to reassure her of his attraction towards the fairer sex, followed by a roll in the hay just to make certain, but those few lines were enough to send a shock all the way up my spine when I first watched the episode.

That shock will be familiar to any readers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or otherwise not heterosexually-inclined. It’s the feeling of being recognised, of being treated not as a marginal or external part of society, but as an integral, everyday part of it – however small. It’s the same reaction, in a far smaller context, as the visceral, joyous response I saw in the faces and on the cheeks of my friends when Barack Obama mentioned queer people in his election-night victory speech in 2008 (this was before he started reading our email). It was a powerful, though brief moment. It told every LGBT person watching, in and outside the US, that we were no longer outsiders, no longer an Other. The President of the United States had extended his arms and welcomed us into society. Even if some people still didn’t get it, we did. In a few short, completely incidental lines of dialogue in one scene, Joss Whedon manages to achieve the same effect, albeit on a much smaller stage.

But, wonderful as the initial excitement of inclusion is, it’s problematic in and of itself. It shouldn’t be that much of a shock merely to be acknowledged; least of all by a genre that often prides itself on pushing social boundaries and dealing with a diverse range of identities and social frameworks. Science fiction is supposed to get there ahead of reality, not the other way around.

There are any number of shows, books, or games – frankly, most of the genre – to which I could turn for examples of LGBT characters’ marginalisation or simple nonexistence in the worlds sci fi authors and screenwriters create. But if any one property, universe, or franchise is to be singled out on these grounds, it must be the grandfather of all modern TV sci fi, Star Trek.

One of the great things about Star Trek and its spin-off series and films was its ability to push boundaries, challenge social conventions, and do so in a way that still made it one of the most popular shows ever on American television. It was the single most progressive show on television for all of its truncated, three-season run. It had a woman, and a black woman at that, doing the same competent, professional job as her male counterparts; not to mention Russian navigator, Chekov, and the ever-fabulous Asian helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei). It even had the first ever on-screen interracial kiss on American airwaves. When Nichelle Nichols informed Martin Luther King Jr. of her plans to quit the show and move to stage acting after the first season, he persuaded her to stay, explaining that she was on TV showing the world “how we should be seen every day”. Her representation of a strong, confident black woman on equal footing with her mostly white, male colleagues was incredibly important at a time when black Americans still lived under – and were fighting against – the awful reality of segregation. Unsurprisingly, she stayed.

As a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s utopian, post-racial vision of the future, Star Trek didn’t just break the mould, it vapourised it.

Given how much of a struggle it was to get that first kiss between Nichols’ and Shatner’s characters to air in the US (it was initially cut from some syndicated broadcasts), you wouldn’t expect any overtly LGBT characters to show up in the original series of Star Trek. George Takei’s shirtless swashbuckling was about as much as they could get away with. The 1960s were the decade of Stonewall and the start of the modern LGBT rights movement, but the cause hadn’t progressed far enough for any network to broach the topic in a primetime show.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is another matter entirely.

Launched in 1987, TNG is often viewed as the point where Star Trek really took off as a TV franchise. It entrenched a multinational, multi-racial, and multi-species crew in the minds of another generation of enthralled kids who stayed up late to watch, eyes glued to the screen. For me, and legions of fans, it’s one of the finest long-running series ever broadcast, up there with The West Wing, The Wire, and Battlestar Galactica (the reboot). The utopian, positive vision of the future Gene Roddenberry saw us reaching for if we could only conquer a few of our baser inclinations is still as relevant today as then. Modern TV sci fi should take a lesson. I could go on for pages about how brilliant it is as a show, but I won’t. That isn’t what this is about.

In light of how great TNG was at dealing with high-concept issues like the nature of humanity and sentience, slavery, or civil liberties and McCarthyism, it seems very odd that the show never deals with anything relating to LGBT issues other than tangentially. There’s an episode where Riker, who assumed Kirk’s duty of making “first contact” with every buxom alien woman in the galaxy, falls for a member of a race which only has one gender – and which treats their few citizens who believe themselves to have a binary-type gender as mentally ill. It’s a decent analysis-by-proxy of trans issues, but that’s all there is. One episode. For seven series. With hundreds of supporting characters and a large group of main characters to choose from, they couldn’t have slipped one or two in? It’s statistically impossible that at least a few of the supporting characters wouldn’t have been partial to the same gender. But, except for one female-only romance in Deep Space 9 which ended after an episode and was in itself illicit for reasons other than the fact Lieutenant Dax was kissing a woman, not a single character in any Star Trek series or film has been openly gay or lesbian. (As an aside: sci fi seems far more comfortable with lesbian romance than gay; probably something to do with the assumed audience being mostly straight and male, thus supposedly titillated by the idea.)

There are two reasons for this lack of representation. The hand-wringing, slightly mealy-mouthed explanation given by Gene Roddenberry when asked about the subject was that because people in his future didn’t care about sexuality, it didn’t need to be shown (despite straight male and female characters having sex all the time). Then there’s the real one, which is that the producers, all the way up to the end of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2004, were phenomenally uncomfortable with showing, or even implying the possibility of, same-sex couples on-screen. They figured it was a money-loser, was too controversial for US audiences, and so vetoed any real attempt at including gay characters in the franchise. Deep Space 9’s Cardassian tailor Garak, for instance, was supposed to be bisexual, but Rick Berman vetoed the idea. To his credit, Andy Robinson, who played Garak, didn’t take this lying down and made up for it by flirting heavily with one of the more attractive male lead characters (Siddig El Fadil’s Dr Julian Bashir) non-stop for 7 series.

Somehow even more fabulous than Sulu. He can still kill you with his little finger though.

Whether it was cowardice or prejudice on the part of network executives, the idea that audiences would automatically reject any explicitly LGBT characters was enormously powerful even in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. It’s likely it persists to this day, given how few non-heterosexual characters there are in current shows. On TV, it was generally easier for sci fi to simply allegorise potentially uncomfortable issues such as sexuality via alien races and speak to general civil rights debates without addressing the real meat of the matter. J. Michael Straczynski’s epic Babylon 5 is probably the only show I can think of which had an unabashedly bisexual character in the form of Commander Susan Ivanova – an incredibly badass, no-nonsense career officer and the titular station’s second in command. She’s the only long-term, central character of a successful sci fi series I can think of whose sexuality is both non-heteronormative and where it isn’t treated as an issue. There’s no debate, no discussion, and it’s given in one line, after which no more is said. So while Straczynski’s addressing the issue is laudable, it isn’t used to reflect on contemporary debates surrounding the topic.

It’s worth mentioning that there is some promising evidence of increased diversity of characters in more recent  sci fi shows. Caprica, for instance, had a relatively major character (a tough mob assassin) who was married to a man (also a mobster). The two men’s relationship was simply there, without comment or any indication something was out of place, while still being very much present as a part of the show’s fabric. Which is how it should be. Sadly, it was cancelled after the first series, continuing the grand tradition of SyFy killing off good, big-concept sci fi for vapid fare like Warehouse 13, and so there’s a big gap to be filled.

Print, on the other hand, has less of an excuse. Authors are always subject to a similar type of pressure from publishers to produce books which the company believes will sell, urged to write out contentious or potentially difficult characters, ideas, and situations to give their books a broader appeal. That being said, they have significantly more creative control of the final manuscript than screenwriters and directors, so “the publishers made me do it” is not really an excuse for the non-appearance of LGBT characters in most written science fiction. There are certainly many more individual authors whose books and characters have some flavour of queerness to them, such as the late, great Iain (M.) Banks’ Culture universe, where people can change their gender at will. Ursula LeGuin, China Mièville, and Samuel R. Delaney also address issues of sexuality and gender politics in their work, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War adroitly disrupts its readers preconceptions of sexual normalcy. I’d recommend Delaney’s Dhalgren if you like having your mind blown in a slightly uncomfortable fashion. But however excellent these individual texts might be, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

Despite the aforementioned exceptions, there are very few honest-to-god gay or lesbian characters in literary science fiction. There are, as always, myriad reasons for this deficit, but apart from publisher pressure to write to a particular demographic – which assumes that white, straight men can’t enjoy any characters which aren’t essentially like them – the two major ones are the type of people who are assumed to read sci fi, and the type of people who are generally perceived to write it. Both of these categories can, again, be boiled down to “straight, white men”.

Of course, in reality that’s completely wrong. Women and people of all races, sexualities, and gender identities read, write, and love science fiction. But it’s the perception that the only people who like or read science fiction are male, generally around middle age, and love breasts to the point where, as with David Brin’s Uplift, they are almost the only feature female characters are given. And perception – both audience-specific and generalised in the aether of public opinion – does help shape culture just as much as the people who produce the novels, films, TV series, comics, and games that make up most cultural output in the genre. So in fact the problem of LGBT character representation in science fiction is a problem of patriarchy and gender as much as, if not more than, homophobia/transphobia – real or perceived.

Sexism and patriarchy in sci fi is another issue that’s far too large for a single blog post, or at least for the rest of this one. It is, however, a good demonstration of the fact that LGBT issues also tend to be women’s issues. If the market for sci fi is perceived to be entirely composed solely of white, straight men over 35, then publishers will continue to sign authors who produce work they believe caters to that market, and authors will feel pressure to conform to its supposed demands.

The fact that some of the greatest, most successful and lauded sci fi novelists are women – Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler, and Anne McCaffrey, to name but a few – and that the primary readership for “young-adult” science fiction novels like The Hunger Games and Catching Fire is female (as my 14 year old sister will attest) seems to have escaped publishers. Against this background things are, frustratingly, getting worse. No novel by a female author has won a Nebula Award since 2011, and there is a growing sense of disenfranchisement and exclusion of female authors, as well as readers, spurred by incidents like this.

While it would be wonderful to be able to suggest some kind of immediate solution to the exclusion of women in sci fi, which by definition also largely excludes LGBT characters and themes in the same way it tends to reduce female characters to paper-thin vehicles for male agency or fantasy, there are unfortunately no quick fixes. Sci fi as a genre needs a much greater diversity of real, fully fleshed-out, strong LGBT and female characters to match the diversity of settings contained within its enormous bounds.

Surely, with all the imagination displayed in building the infinite worlds in which the fascinating, transformative stories of science fiction are told, authors can write better, more interesting LGBT and female characters than the cardboard cut-outs which are so often the case? As readers we can and should use the channels of communication which social media has opened up with our favourite writers and directors to demand more complex, more diverse characters in our sci fi. And, as queer creators, we need to start putting work out there which shows people like us the way we’re meant to be seen. Because, unless we do just that, we’re going to keep on getting fed the same sexist, limiting assumptions about us, and about what we like reading and seeing in our characters.

Transhumanism, Post-Humans, and Human Nature: Cyberpunk as a Social and Mental Laboratory (Part 1)

The previous two articles I have published on this blog concern how sci fi pushes the limits of our imaginations with big ships, interstellar flight, and takes us to the end of the universe. While this is a very broad and rich area of science fiction to cover, there is an equally rich vein of content which concerns itself with the inner world and social analysis here on earth. It would be a failing on my part if I simply stuck to space opera when there is so much other material to cover. And so, we turn to Cyberpunk, that child of the 1980s focused on the big, sprawling city-scapes of the near future, filled with corrupt corporations, dirty cops, and cybernetic antiheroes. Think Blade Runner and you’ll be on the right track.

Over the course of three posts we will look at how this sub-genre can act as a test chamber for different ideas of what it means to be human, and just how far our technology can take us before we lose that humanity. Or whether it’s even worth preserving.

Being a post-human, cybernetically augmented badass is hard work.

Part 1: Deus Ex Machina – Technology and the Laboratory of the Mind

Because we all possess certain broad “natural fictions” and set ways of thinking about issues – “frames” and “schema” – which set the parameters for how we react to new situations and process new data, it is entirely possible for us to believe things which aren’t true. Indeed, all of us do so to a greater or lesser extent: we employ fictional constructs to help us think about new things, whether we recognise them as fiction or not.

In, Beyond the Frame: Cognitive Science, Common Sense, and Fiction, the psychologist Marishka Grishakova develops these well-established psychological ideas to construct a continuum between reality and literary fiction, arguing for a blurring of the dividing line we place between literary fiction and reality. For her they are contiguous, as literature by and large uses the same schema and frames employed by its readers, and tends to reinforce them. Using this framework can help us see how science fiction functions as a critical excercise as well as a damn good yarn.

One of the distinguishing features of speculative fiction is that it often introduces frames completely foreign to the reader, forcing them to confront the new and the strange, to consider new possibilities. Beyond the Frame makes a convincing case for fiction as a social tool for creating and testing new frames and ideological constructs: ‘Fiction may be considered as an experimental cognitive laboratory, where updating of the mind’s “software” occurs and finds a hypothetical resolution.’

Cyberpunk is perfectly placed to illustrate this argument for fiction as this laboratory. Usually set in the near future, the noire, technologically-driven narratives and universes built within the boundaries of the sub-genre are fertile ground for consideration of our own, neighbouring reality. Because cyberpunk tends to use themes drawn straight from our own world (corporate and government corruption, greed, the darker side of society, technology as both blessing and curse), which we see every day, it can more easily take the familiar stuff of everyday life and make it into something altogether alien. This blending of the familiar and the strange serves as a powerful test lab for how we think about issues such as our relationship with the tools that help us survive, and the way in which our experiences in the world change us as individuals and a society.

Technology and its impact on our essential nature is a central preoccupation of cyberpunk science fiction. From Ghost in the Shell to Neuromancer (more on those later), the question of how augmenting yourself beyond your natural capabilities through cybernetics or nanotechnology affects your ability to think and feel human animates the genre and pushes it to some extremely dark places. Indeed, the recent game Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR) takes the question one step further and actively puts it to the player. You get to choose whether we become one with our machines (effectively ceasing to be human as we now know it), or whether we preserve our species as is and reject technological enhancement.

The interactive nature of the medium allows the player to participate in the experiment as it is progressing, to drive the action in the story as well as experience it. While there is a set narrative arc to DX:HR, the final choice allows the player to decide which conclusion they have reached from the available evidence.

The world’s reactions to the central character, Adam Jensen, augmented without consent to save his life after a terrorist attack, also change depending on how you play and which augmentations you decide to pursue. If you refrain from killing entirely, or only kill as little as possible, then you tend to get more positive reactions to your presence in the world; if every mission is a bloodbath, then the other characters react negatively and comment more on your lack of humanity. The final choice between technological singularity and base human nature is actually less important to how the game acts as a conceptual laboratory than the hundreds of choices (whether to spare your enemies or kill them, or how you talk to the other characters about your augmentations, for instance) made throughout its course.

In DX:HR, the player gets to decide how far they wish to depart from their humanity and become something else. They are also presented with numerous examples, major and minor, of the ways in which this can turn out. Just as in the real world, there is a tapestry of competing ideas and arguments on either side, and the player must navigate their way through them to arrive at their own conclusion. As such, it provides a very good example of how we can think about this kind of problem. It helps us see the road we may travel, albeit a fictional and somewhat exaggerated version.

At what point along this road do we cease to be human, and does that even matter? It is a troubling question to consider, especially in light of our increasing use of wearable technologies such as Google Glass, and the development of ever better artificial limbs. While I don’t believe we will end up amputating our hands simply to play the piano better, it is still necessary to consider the possibilities for our own future the development and further integration of technology into our lives implies.

In the next two posts I shall look at this issue, and others, in more detail through a closer examination of how different cyberpunk works of fiction deal with them. Feel free to come along for the ride.

The Tau of Light Speed: How Propulsion Changes Everything

There are a huge number of sub-genres of science fiction. They all have their own tropes, archetypes, and ways of doing things. The characteristics of any given one vary wildly, because sci fi is such a broadly-defined category and because it lends itself to wild flights of imagination into universes as disparate as their creators’ minds.

A number of these categories, often grouped under the heading of ‘hard’ sci fi (we’ll cover how problematic the hard/soft distinction is in another post), tend to include space ships and interstellar travel. This is the classic vision of high-tech sci fi and brings me onto the main thrust of this article: there are two basic ways those ships reach the stars, and each technology fundamentally influences the character of the universes they help drive.

The challenge, both for fictional and real-life space travel, is that space is big. Astronomically so, if you will. Take the light year, the basic unit of measurement we use for the distances between stars: The mean distance from our planet to the Sun (known as one Astronomical Unit, or AU) is 149,597,871 km. One light year, or the distance light travels in one Earth solar year, measures just over 63,239 AU or 9.4605284 × 1012 km. Our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is just over 4.2 light years away.

We simply can’t cover those kind of distances using conventional chemical rockets like those we currently use to get into orbit and which sent astronauts to the moon. Even our fastest, which launched the Voyager probes out of the gravity well of our star and into interstellar space, only travel at 16.3 kilometers per second. The speed of light is 299,792.5 km/s.

This is also where that wonderful genius, Einstein, comes back to kick us in the teeth. According to the General and Special Theories of Relativity he devised, which – mostly – have been proven correct by experimental data as well as further theoretical study, the speed of light acts as the effective speed limit for the universe. Nothing can go faster than light. Ever. Sir Isaac Newton may be the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space, but Einstein’s the biggest bastard.

You see the problem. If we can’t go faster than light then, even assuming we can approach light speed in any meaningful way, it is going to be a long time before any of humanity’s ships reach the stars. When they do, the children of mankind will be scattered across the vastness of space, unable to communicate effectively or create any kind of interconnected civilisation. Because subjective time moves ever more slowly the closer you get to light speed, a few years of ship-time on any of these interstellar voyages will equate to decades or even centuries back home. Any travellers or explorers heading to other solar systems will return to entirely different worlds from which they left; they will be orphaned in time.

If, on the other hand, we can somehow negate the light speed barrier then it becomes a different ballgame altogether. With space travel taking weeks or months of normal time rather than decades or centuries, we will be able to communicate and spread much further than we would travelling at sub-light speeds. We can go and explore the cosmos, see its wonders and terrors, and generally fly around the galaxy like we own the place (assuming someone else doesn’t already). This future is brighter, and holds the prospect of an interconnected human diaspora, a civilisation such as the the ones imagined in Star Trek or Dune. It is worth noting that it is now at least theoretically possible to travel faster than light without negating Einsteinian Relativity, so the real future may actually be a form of warp drive. NASA is apparently working on it, but unfortunately for us all the technology is still at its earliest stages of development.

As I mention above, the distinction between sub-light and FTL travel fundamentally changes the feel of the universes created by works of science fiction, and the stories told within them. Universes in which it is extremely difficult or impossible to break the light speed barrier tend to be darker, grimmer, places with humanity scattered across the stars. The stories told in them, such as Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, are almost without exception ‘hard’ sci fi, and Reynolds’ work is a perfect example.

The Revelation Space universe is a very dark, dangerous place filled with inhuman monsters and nanotechnology gone awry. Humans have spread across multiple worlds, but are often impoverished and eking out a meagre existence in the fallen civilisations built by their forefathers. The kilometer-long, heavily armed ships which travel between the stars – ‘lighthuggers’ – are crewed by ‘Ultras’, post-humans modified with nanotechnology and physical augmentations to be more effective in combat, think faster, work in zero-gravity, and for other more esoteric purposes. Travel between systems takes decades, and the appearance of a lighthugger above a planet heralds either trouble or once-in-a-generation opportunity for acquiring new technologies. There is also the positing of an answer to the Fermi Paradox, which clearly influenced Mass Effect’s Cosmicist, genocidal ‘Reapers’.

The inability to easily travel faster than light in the Revelation Space universe (for, as it turns out, you can but it’s an incredibly bad idea) is a core factor in how the narrative plays out and how the central concepts it addresses are developed throughout the novels set there.

Other novels, such as Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson, take the concept of relativity and time/mass-dilation at relativistic speeds to extremes in different ways. Instead of Reynolds’ sprawling space-opera, Anderson’s novel limits itself to a single crew of 50, confined within the hull of a ship sent to explore a nearby star system. Halfway through the journey, they encounter a micro-nebula which damages their deceleration system, and because of the nature of their engine (the Bussard Drive, a real-life proposal for interstellar travel), they must keep accelerating in order to survive.

Anderson’s crew ends up a very long way from home and, due to the time-dilation effects of adding velocity at near-light speeds, tens of billions of years into the future. I shan’t spoil the ending, but the novel deals adeptly with the psychological and social effects of being isolated from your civilisation, confronting the inevitable death of your entire species, and the basic insignificance of not only our individual human lives but our whole universe. Like Revelation Space and many other excellent ‘hard’ sci fi works, it is able to perform these quite remarkable feats of psychological and social imagination in part due to the basic constraints of the universe it posits.

Just as the constraints of a sonnet help poets explore new possibilities, so the bonds of Relativity help push science fiction to new and often terrifying places. While there is much excellent sci fi featuring faster than light travel, the gloom seemingly inherent in the acknowledgement of the limit of light speed forces the fictional envelope to be pushed in unexpected ways. Placing limits on our ability to overcome the laws of nature does rankle somewhat, especially in fictional genres often so freely untethered from them, but the ways in which those limits change our responses can be absolutely fascinating, even inspiring. Much as I hope we can circumvent the laws of physics and travel to the stars quickly, the inverse proposition produces some excellent fiction.

Death and the Author – Sci Fi, Iain Banks, and Genre Trouble

The recent announcement by Iain Banks that he has terminal cancer is very saddening. Our country is going to lose one of its finest writers in any genre, and Science/Speculative Fiction (which he wrote as Iain M. Banks) is going to lose one of its most astute, witty, and talented voices writing today. He has helped prove to the critics what those of us who read it regularly have known for a very long time: that it is possible to write science fiction and have it be excellent literature in its own right.

I don’t intend to write on his life or how he is as a person, both because I do not know him and also because the facts of his life are largely irrelevant to an understanding of his work. I do however intend to try and describe what his work — his success both in and out of the literary ghetto — says about our perception of ‘genre fiction’, and specifically Science Fiction.

Starting with the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, Iain Banks’ novels have enjoyed considerable critical acclaim and commercial success. I remember reading The Wasp Factory when I was 13, and it thrilled and profoundly  disturbed me. The scene describing how the protagonist’s brother lost his mind haunts me to this day, due in equal measure to the incredibly disturbing content and the pitch-black humour of the whole passage. Banks has a talent for rendering even the most horrible images or situations into something potentially funny. Once the occasional urge to put down the book and run in the opposite direction screaming with an odd combination of horror and laughter is overcome, at least.

His movement into Science Fiction was equally as triumphant, publishing Consider Phlebas in 1987, followed by a string of extremely successful works, the latest  of which (The Hydrogen Sonata) was released last year. These novels have quietly become an important fixture of the British SF landscape, and represent a much-loved trove for many readers. My favourite’s probably Excession. The conversations between the AI ‘Minds’ which control the ships, giant Ringworld-inspired ‘orbitals’, and almost everything else important in the Culture, are wonderful exemplars of the acid wit and talent for character-building dialogue which run through much of his canon.

For me, the Culture universe he creates is one of the few truly believable and well-structured Utopias in fiction. It is also, as he has said himself, not quite the subject of the novels. Banks writes on the edges of civilisation: the backwoods planets off the beaten track and the jumping-off places usually occupied by Special Circumstances, the Culture’s semi-official, self-described “dirty tricks” organisation. Trekkies will recognise notes of Star Trek’s ‘Section 31’ — although SC has a far better sense of humour.

The parallels with Star Trek do not end with the vaguely unethical, but necessary (and it absolutely is, Banks never needlessly hand-wrings), intelligence and covert ops organisation. The Culture is very much like the Federation, except vastly more powerful, more certain of itself, and run by hyper-intelligent, snarky AI Minds inhabiting massive ships.

Just as the huge size and scope of the Star Trek universe allows for almost any story to be told, so too the galaxy-spanning Culture universe and its external, liminal spaces allows Banks to achieve the goal towards which much good Science Fiction strives: examining our own culture and society through the lens of an entirely different one. It can and does go absolutely anywhere. There is even a literal, and hugely, blackly funny, instance of self-reflexive socio-cultural examination in The State of the Art, when in one of the stories that comprise that collection, a Culture ship and its crew find modern-day earth.

Another apt comparison, as an author whose work takes a traditionally ghettoised genre and makes it accessible in the best possible way, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Pratchett’s universe is a more direct, overtly satirical, fantasy take on our own than Banks’ high-technology Culture, but functionally the two writers’ worlds are fairly similar. They both use humour to, as the Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin put it, “…deliver the object into the fearless hands of investigative experiment — both scientific and artistic — and into the hands of free experimental fantasy.” It is this quality which makes the Culture novels and the rest of Iain (M.) Banks’ science fiction quite such compelling literature in universal terms, as well as those of its own genre.

The best science fiction — amongst which I and many others count Banks’ work — is not merely social analysis, an examination of human nature, or a rollicking good adventure, though those are certainly all aspects that can play a part. Science Fiction is relevant as a genre outside of its often ghettoised limits precisely because it allows us not only to examine our own culture and society through a lens (or scanner) darkly, but that it can also imagine solutions to the problems it often highlights. It is this incredible gift for imagination, for seeing not only the problems but how they can be overcome, that characterises the work of great sci fi authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Iain Banks with or without the M.

Or it could just be a damn good story with sentient starships and a whole lot of shooting.