From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

August 26, 2010

Call me old-fashioned, naive even, but science fiction has always appealed to me principally as a form of escapism. A means of envisaging a world - an Isaac Asimov/Arthur C. Clarke kind of a world - where there is at least a hint of ultimate redemption for humanity, and where disbelief can be suspended for a while in a warm, reassuring glow of hope. It is a world in which intelligence and compassion bring rewards for humanity, and the futility of war and conflict is washed away in a flood of reason. In terms of current critical analysis of the genre, that puts my default position firmly in the "liberal bourgeois" grouping - so with a title like this, it is perhaps not surprising that I approached Peter Paik's book with a coolness bordering on trepidation.

Paik takes a number of examples - some mainstream, some fringe - from the recent history of both science fiction and fantasy, developing a model of the moral, social and political contradictions that are either explicitly present or implied within these constructs. He has chosen case studies where human - or superhuman - intelligence, omnipotence and strength do not necessarily go hand in hand with moral courage and happy endings. In this way, he reflects on the manner in which the current "dark side" of science fiction forces us to address the failings and limitations of human society and behaviour.

Perhaps inevitably, Paik's choice of material is both highly significant and infinitely debatable, but he weaves it into a narrative that reads well and carries his theme effectively. Some examples of the genre are almost "self-selecting"; it is almost unimaginable that Paik could have produced this text without referring to the Matrix trilogy. But here he has built his core discussion on some of the less familiar, less regarded, elements: the series of short films that make up The Animatrix - cultish extra snacks slipped between the three main courses that help develop the complicated, occasionally obscure, backstory.

Both the graphic novel and film versions of the sinister classic Watchmen are analysed in detail, along with a review of much of the critical work in this area. While the versions differ in significant details, the pivotal element is the slaughter of millions of people in order to save billions of other lives - by uniting humanity against a common (fictitious) enemy.

Other choices are less predictable - such as the South Korean film Save the Green Planet, which deals with the starkly brutal torture of a suspected alien invader. A larger selection of example texts and films would perhaps have supported his case more firmly, but Paik's reliance instead on textual depth may well be what distinguishes this book to future scholars - delivering, as it does, an analysis based on the current concerns of society.

This is not a comfortable read. It will not help you sleep at night, nor will it provide a feel-good moment in the final chapter. But what it does, it does well: it graphically illustrates the human capacity for the generation - and justification - of horrific, morally ambiguous outcomes. Whether these are fact-based or fictional seems, ultimately, irrelevant.

I anticipated finding a range of darkly dystopian futures discussed in Paik's book - and I was certainly not disappointed. But if you can persevere and read past the painfully violent, disturbingly visceral passages in the text, it is just about possible to garner a limited, vague and just-out-of-reach sort of hope for humanity that may - tragically - be the most realistic stance for the early 21st century.

From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

By Peter Y. Paik. University of Minnesota Press. 232pp, £37.50 and £12.50. ISBN 9780816650781 and 0798. Published 1 April 2010

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