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Transcript of Science Fiction
Today we’ll consider:
A little bit of the history of science fiction
What does sf do?
There is nothing like constructing a world, or recognising a constructed world, for teaching you to see your OWN world as a construct.”(Roberts, 2000: p.181)
History of sf
The long history...
… takes us back to 160CE when Lucian of Samosata tells a story about going to the moon.
Lucian wrote a brand of satire that “broke the demands of historical realism or probability. The menippea moved easily in space between this world, an underworld, and an upper world. It conflated past, present and future, and allowed dialogues with the dead. States of hallucinaton, dream, insanity, eccentric behaviour and speech, personal transformation, extraordinary situations, were the norm.” (Jackson, 1981: p.14)
The short history...
… only goes back as far as 1818 and the publication of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’ – unnatural births, hubris, monsters and mad scientists!
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Frontispiece from 1831 edition
Fictional portrait of Lucian from the 17th Century
19th Century sf writers reflected the technological progress of the Industrial Revolution but also the anxieties created by such big social changes.
H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
Jules Verne (1828-1905)
Known as the 'New Wave' in science fiction, these writers wanted to move away from sf's pulp, populist origins and were more interested in creating a sense of wonder and experimentation than in 'hard science'.
Barbarella (Dir: Roger Vadim, 1968)
History of sf
1863 – Jules Verne publishes 'Voyage to the Centre of the Earth'
1895 - H G Wells publishes 'The Time Machine', and in 1898 'War of the Worlds'.
In 1895(ish) cinema is invented.
1902 – Georges Melies creates 'Le Voyage dans la lune' the latest in a series of 'films fantastique' – films of spectacle and imagination.
sf and the cinema run side by side.
Melies emphasised “fantastic images and events: exploding moon men, a flying train, undersea monsters, interplanetary travel.” (Bould, 2009: p.43)
Discourse, Ideology and the Media
In 1977, there was a game changing film. ‘Star Wars’ (Dir: George Lucas, 1977). It was epic, full of spectacle and extravagant special effects. sf cinema has largely followed on in that style ever since.
“Fantastic literature points to… the basis upon which cultural order rests, for it opens up, for a brief moment onto disorder, onto illegality, onto that which lies outside the law, that which is outside dominant value systems. The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’.
(Jackson, 1981, p.4)
Visoki Decani Monastery , Kosovo
Fresco painted in 1350
Or are both horror and science fiction really sub genres of fantasy?
Horror looks to the past, but SF looks to the future?
But what about a definition for sf...?
Fantasy, sf, and horror ‘get away’ with saying things, looking at topics that others don’t. The familiar made unfamiliar.
1960s sf becomes mass market, and reflects (helps create?) the liberalising politics of the day.
Apocalypse derives from the Greek word ‘apokalypsis’ which means uncovering or revelation.
Strictly speaking ‘apocalypse’ refers to a body of writing produced in Jewish circles between 250BCE and 200CE, before it was subsequently taken up by Christian writers (who really did think that the second coming of Christ was going to happen soon). Their writing was designed to encourage the oppressed believers by describing a cosmos restored after a great catastrophe for the unbelievers. But the boundaries of this type of writing were loose. Sometimes they were political tracts veiled as divine revelation.
Albrecht Dürer’s image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse dating from 1498
Literature in this vein is historically about revealing what has been hidden… it came to mean a sense of future expectation and of endings.
The Road (Dir: John Hillcoat, 2009)
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, it is a more personal vision of apocalypse, focussing on the relationship between a man and his son, in a world that is dead. It's a darkly uncompromising and brutal tale.
This film seems to buck the trend of apocalypses that offer the sweeping away of the current civilisation and a chance of renewal for humanity (the telos type ending). Rather it seems to offer a resolutely terminus type ending. Except the film does offer a glimmer of hope (unlike the novel...maybe).
'The Road' is a film that is about ending, and how one might face that. In this sense, it seems to be a meditation on personal death, rather than the spectacular visions of renewal for Western Civilisation that other Hollywood films offer.
sf "is one of the only genres that which allows a framework for difficult philosophical and political debate." (Casey, 2002: p.209)
"They were critical of technological progress, suspicious of national power and imperialism and devoted to a celebration of sex, drugs and roll 'n' roll. In some cases, New Wave writers emphasised the dystopian decay of Western culture in order to critique the social and political conditions of their time." (Reid, 2009: p.74)
Sf has an equally illustrious history on the small screen, but the focus was less on spectacle (because of the smaller screen and budget constraints) and more on ideas. The shift in technology to higher definition tvs and the fall in special effects cost, mean cinema and TV are converging .
Apocalypse in Film
Apocalypse stories offer a view of catastrophic change. The end of the established order: disaster, death and destruction.
But there are two types of 'ending' :
Telos ending - from the Greek meaning end, purpose or goal. It comes to mean an ending with an ultimate purpose.
Terminus ending - from the Latin meaning end, boundary, stop. It comes to mean an ending that just stops.
The 'terminus ending' is rare, because the purpose of the genre is really to challenge world views; to create a 'revolution of the imagination'; to challenge common perceptions and generate visions of what could be.
The idea of zombies in western literature can be traced to the American occupation of Haiti (1915-34) but it is really George Romero's 1968 film
Night of the Living Dead
that creates the genre.
After Romero, the zombie is not the creation of black magic, but rather some kind of scientific mishap (radiation, disease, ecological contamination etc.) Making it sf!
The zombie can encompass a wide range
We are capitalist zombies - blindly consuming.
We feel like zombies - alienated, lifeless.
We are afraid - of outsiders, of aging, of death... etc.
We are afraid of seeing or
to see the established order swept away...(
Night of the Living Dead
ending). But what comes next? (
?) Could it be better? Or worse?
But the zombie is evolving. There are stories in which zombies seem to begin to recover! Romero again in
Land of the Dead
(2009); and in 2013
was a kind of zom rom com...
But even if you don't care about the zombies themselves (or any other monsters, ghosts or aliens) remember that all our 'old friends' those very real discourses about gender, sexuality, race, disability etc.
circulate within the texts, sometimes in unexpected or fresh and creative ways.