Semiotics of Science Fiction

10 July 2009


Do you notice any symmetries between these poster images?

Do you notice any symmetries between these poster images?

The popularity of science fiction in contemporary culture provides important insights into the nature of the world today. These insights are more significant than the silly pulp science fiction images that featured on the film advertisement posters. The covers of pulp science fiction novels were equally absurd and equally unrelated to the content of the story.

To watch and to understand a contemporary production of science fiction (and this holds as well for reading science fiction) requires mastering a certain set of background assumptions. It requires moreover an initial flexibility of interpretation, as when one is initially exposed to a new science fiction universe one does not yet know the possibilities and limits of the technologies that shape the stories. For example, there is an important structural difference between stories that assume faster than light travel is possible (in some form or another), so that heroes, heroines, and villains can go from planet to planet more or less effortlessly, and stories in which it is assumed that interstellar travel and commerce is a long-term proposition. And there are, of course, degrees between these possibilities, and some plots that have these possibilities overlap.

It would be easy to write all day long about the relationship between technological speculation and the structure of science fiction stories, but that isn’t what I want to pursue today. Recently I wrote Themes from The Tempest after watching the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet for the umpteenth time. In that post I mentioned in particular two other science fiction films, The Day the Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth. Now I have just watched This Island Earth again and this has led me to rethink some of my earlier interpretations of both films.

I was always bothered by the ham-handed injection of religion into Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth. Now having seen both again recently, I have a little different take on what I always assumed was an uptight 1950s McCarthy-era theological jingoism — sort of like the absurdity of “I am an American Day” except in a science fiction context this becomes, “I am a Christian Day” — an exercise in profound existential insecurity. (Recall that it was 1957 that “In God we trust” was added to US currency.) Well, the scenes I have in mind may be all that after all, but they represent other cultural developments as well.

Science fiction can be understood as the contemporary incarnation of the fairy tale, simply giving incomprehensible technological explanations to account for things that in previous ages would have been credited to magic — the deus ex machina with the deus naturalized. This is essentially the position of Arthur C. Clark and his much repeated Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

However, the corollary of Clark’s Third Law is that magic is indistinguishable from any sufficiently advanced technology (and “sufficiently” must be understood to be culturally relative). Clark’s Third Law and its corollary together might be called the principle of equivalence for magic and technology. Given the equivalence, it is a matter of perspective whether we regard magic as primary and technology as imitating magic, or we regard technology as primary and magic as imitating technology. But the difference of perspective is important, because different people with different perspectives will see things in different ways.

Arthur C. Clark was primarily a story teller, and his “laws” are formulated poetically. For Clark, a science fiction story was a fairy tale updated for the modern world, and technology imitated magic. But no genre can be confined to the views of one man, however influential. It is more or less inevitable that there will be others who see the principle of equivalence for magic and technology in terms such that a fairy tale was nascent science fiction that was trying to do what could not yet be done with man’s technological resources, and that magic is a pale imitation of technology. We shall call the first view represented by Clark the poetic conception, and we will call the second view the naturalistic conception, since it assumes a naturalistic world view.

I think that science fiction is becoming progressively more naturalistic, and that signs of this shift away from fairy tales to stories, in which science fiction is simply another setting for a story and not a fantastic setting, is already apparent in Forbidden Planet. The religious intrusion that bothered me in Forbidden Planet can be interpreted in this way. The scene occurs near the end of the film, at the climax, when Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is struggling with Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), who shouts at Morbius: “We’re all part monsters in our subconscious! — So we have laws and religion.” (Near the beginning of the film there is also the line, “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds.” This, however, is noticeably less obtrusive, and does not feel out of place in the dialogue.)

As irritatingly obtrusive as this line is, here religion is presented in an essentially naturalistic way as a social control, a mechanism to prevent the destructive subconscious drives of the id from wreaking havoc. Forbidden Planet is well-known for its Freudian themes, and this too can be considered an application of Freud’s point of view in The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents. Religion and civilization impose limits on the fulfillment of instinctual gratification, and they do so because it is preferable to the alternative of barbarism and savagery.

This Island Earth is rather less sophisticated, and it cannot be assimilated to this interpretation. The religious intrusion in this film, as in Forbidden Planet, occurs near the end, hence near the climax of the action (not unlike the simple-minded condemnation of philosophers who have denied the gods at the climax of Aristophanes’ The Clouds). When Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) are introduced to the Monitor of Metaluna (Douglas Spencer), and the plan to colonize earth and to place human beings in an inferior position is revealed, the Monitor states in a matter-of-fact way, “It is indeed typical that you Earth people refuse to believe in the superiority of any world but your own. Children looking into a magnifying glass, imagining the image you see is the image of your true size.” To which Meacham replies, “Our true size is the size of our God.”

Of the three films I previously mentioned, The Day the Earth Stood Still is perhaps the most sophisticated, and it has no intrusion insisting upon either the value or veracity of religious doctrines. There is only one mention of religion in the screenplay, and this is not in the dialogue:

INTERCUT with the above are group and individual shots of
the people in the meeting. They are the cream of Earth’s
intellectuals — scientists, churchmen, educators, leaders
of social and political thought. There are several women
among them. There are turbaned Indians, Chinese, Japanese,
several Negroes. All religions are represented. Every
important world power is represented.

The very diversity of the scene represented demonstrates a secular and international perspective that precludes the kind of outbursts detailed above. In both of the scenes I mentioned above the religious intrusion struck me as forced, artificial, and out of place — essentially as absurd and as unrelated to the story as the illustrations on the film posters shown above. I have to wonder if similar religious intrusions were suggested for the script of The Day the Earth Stood Still but were abandoned as simply too forced and artificial. But this is mere speculation on my part.

Given the distinction I drew above between the poetic conception and the naturalistic conception of science fiction, I am inclined to classify The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet as embodying the naturalistic conception, while This Island Earth embodies the poetic conception. In other words, This Island Earth is a fairy tale whereas the other two films are not. This may seem like an odd assertion, given that This Island Earth was based on a novel from 1952 whereas Forbidden Planet was (loosely) based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But I think it is a fair division. The more I think about it, the more I see how This Island Earth could be rewritten as, say, a tale from the Arabian Nights, while the contemporary elements, which include central plot devices, of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet would not translate well into an earlier, pre-science ficiton idiom.

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One Response to “Semiotics of Science Fiction”

  1. Phil said

    I enjoyed reading this post. I think the underlying themes in ‘serious’ SF have much to do with resonating the predominant myths circulating in society or constructing new myths for our time. You certainly have made me want to watch the three movies mentioned in the post. I hope to see more content such as this and will re-visit your site to check it out.

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