Saturday, September 02, 2006

Adventures in the Fantastic

The TV westerns that appealed to children prepared the way for the adult western, and in a way, the same process was repeated in sci-fi. The difference was that sci-fi adventures weren’t set in a recognizable reality as the westerns were, and low budget sets and effects weren’t that convincing. With weird aliens and talking robots, sci-fi adventures seemed too much like fantasy for the buttoned-down 50s and early 60s.

But the fantastic was part of the sci-fi adventure from the very beginning. Both new technologies and new lands expanded public notions of what was possible, which encouraged what writer Italo Calvino called "one of the most characteristic products of nineteenth century narrative:" tales of the fantastic.

These included tales of the uncanny and the mysterious. Though these were ancient themes, technology and the change it created encouraged an openness to the fantastic. Dickens described his railroad and mechanized boat trip across the English channel as "realizing the Arabian Nights in these prose days." Such experiences naturally suggested more wonders to come, and if the limits of what had previously been thought possible was violated, who knew what other limits would fall? In a world where suddenly you were able to speak directly to a relative living many miles away and who you haven't seen for twenty years, who is to say that tomorrow you won't be able to speak to a relative who has been dead for that long?

This infusion of the magical into everyday life countered almost ironically the rationalist assumptions—and rationalist propaganda—of industrial science. This experience of the marvelous sent people back to stories of other ages, to folk tales, ghost stories, fairy tales and myth— and to the superstitions that science was supposedly eradicating. So through tales of the fantastic, old stories were assuming new guises, and the continuity of story in all its dimensions was still alive.

One popular writer who combined adventure and the fantastic was H. Rider Haggard, who began with an African adventure in King Solomon's Mine and extended his imaginative speculation to include elements of the mystical and philosophical in She and its sequel. His explorers were romantic heroes (prototypes of the Speilberg and Lucas film character, Indiana Jones) but part of the adventure was also the search for philosophical truth in the underlying mystery of things. Such an exploration is the often unacknowledged but irresistible purpose of scientific inquiry, as well as the perennial attempt to illuminate the human soul. (The phrase, “the heart of darkness,” appears in She, years before Joseph Conrad’s famous story of a journey up an African river.)

Like the adult westerns that kept the basic horse opera situations and action, Star Trek built on a sense of the adventure of exploring the strange new worlds of outer space—in fact, the culminating adventure of humanity, facing its final frontier—a theme that would be expanded and deepened to include many other explorations necessitated by this one, as the saga developed.

No comments: