The Fire Must Be Kept Burning

Prometheus |
Credit: Fox /

Last Saturday, I spent my morning on the couch with a debilitating migraine, wondering what karmic injustice I’d committed in order to deserve being so miserable on my weekend off. But like the glass-half-full seeker of silver linings that I am, I whipped out the Prometheus 4-Disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray I’d gotten as a gift this past Christmas, and set to work watching . . . well, all of the included special features. Something like seven hours’ worth of making-of documentaries, featurettes, and commentaries.

I’m left feeling — even after a week’s worth of reflection — that those hours were not, in fact, ill-spent. Even after almost a year since the film’s theatrical release, I can’t help but maintain that Ridley Scott’s science-fictional reprise is, if flawed, also criminally underappreciated.

For my money, science fiction is little more than fantasy with an eye toward the future.

That’s why it’s so tremendously important in our culture, despite the various stigmas that still cling to its otherworldly exterior: it’s a myth for tomorrow. Quite often the difference between so-called “soft” and “hard” science fiction seems to be the difference between who’s willing to admit they’re faking it and who’s not.

That’s not to say there’s no value in scientific rigor within the literature of science fiction — just that the air of intellectual elitism on the part of certain hard SF advocates is a tad misplaced in its priorities, I’d argue.

In the realm of fantasy, set pieces like magic spells and secondary-world kingdoms, hobgoblins and dragons, are utterly taken for granted. The standard by which a fantasy novel’s judged is not the scope of known scientific fact but rather the degree to which the author crafts a sense of verisimilitude; it’s about not breaking the story’s individual “rules,” and just generally smoothing out the edges.

Prometheus |
Credit: Fox /

But what makes Prometheus worth a second look, in my opinion, is the way it comes together as a cohesive thematic and aesthetic whole after repeated viewings, and especially after you’ve seen the amount of work that went into crafting the audiovisual experience of the film’s faraway world.

Sure, the script is broken. The characters aren’t particularly believable a good deal of the time; Scott made a handful of decidedly bad calls in the editing room, like keeping Fifield’s transformation subtle rather than super-scary and cutting down on the final confrontation with the surviving Engineer; and the “purpose” behind much of the alien biology throughout the film has been diluted, likely as a result of Fox having too many hands in the pot: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof . . . not to mention Scott’s own colossal ego.

According to what we’re shown in the pre-production and storytelling portions of the special features, the film began life as a straight-up prequel titled Alien: Genesis, which Spaihts wrote with a handful of broad suggestions from Scott. From this, the idea of the Space Jockey as the seeders of sentient life on Earth — even the specific term “Engineers” — emerged as a dominant plot concern for the film.

For practical reasons as well as philosophic ones, apparently, the Space Jockey was given an all-too-human face beneath its alien exoskeleton. And as a result, we’re led to question the motivations and history behind the biological weaponry that wreaks such unholy havoc on the crew of the Prometheus.

So of course there’s an element of disappointment, of being ultimately underwhelmed, in pretty much every review of the film you read. People want to understand everything; it’s why we have the literature of SF.

That’s why Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey, while considered by many to be the greatest science-fiction motion picture of all time, still feels inferior alongside its companion novelization by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke, who offers more explicit gestures toward the monoliths’ intended purpose, as well as painting a very striking portrait of their alien creators in the space of a few paragraphs.

If we’re being far-sighted in our assessment, however, it’s worth noting that Blade Runner was upon in its initial release a massive financial flop, earning at the box office merely half its budget; and yet Scott reputedly regards the film as his most personal, most artful achievement — especially if we’re narrowing the sample to only his science fiction pictures. And its popularity as both a cult classic and filmmaking achievement continues to grow with every passing decade.

Scott mentions in the Blu-ray commentary that he intends to direct a sequel, which news and fan sites have referred to as Paradise (one of the post-Alien: Genesis working titles for Prometheus, if I recall correctly). This leads me to another key point: Without the context of a larger implied universe, without a sequel or two to bring closure about the Engineers’ true goals and beliefs, Prometheus will always feel like a promise unfulfilled.

Prometheus |
Credit: Fox /

Imagine, for a moment, if George Lucas’s 1977 version of Star Wars had earned little money in its first theatrical run. Would Darth Vader be the chilling, mythic character we see him as today if he hadn’t shone so brightly at the undeniable height of his complexity in The Empire Strikes Back? And furthermore, would the first Star Wars film feel like such a “classic” without the benefit of retrospect and its implications for the later, arguably more interesting installments in the trilogy? I’m not so sure.

Take the so-called Special Edition scene in Scott’s Alien (’79), for instance: We glimpse the goopy, horrific hive-making habits of the Xenomorph on display with Captain Dallas strung up, helpless and begging for a merciful death courtesy of Lieutenant Ripley’s flamethrower — but this scene is unnecessary and meaningless without the larger context provided by Cameron’s highly competent sequel, Aliens (’86).

Blade Runner got away without the sequel treatment for so many years, sure, but that’s because it feels so utterly complete. The ending — Scott’s Director’s Cut ending, in particular — is poignant, puzzling, and appropriate. The script ignored elements of Dick’s novel, like Mercerism, World War Terminus, and the titular electric sheep . . . so we’re left with a film that fulfills every inch of its promise, and reveals something poetic and unexpected each time we revisit it. It’s a compelling visual story, for one, but it’s also thematically timeless.

Don’t you think Prometheus will be a hell of a lot better once some of these quibbles get explained? A director’s cut release is all but inevitable.

It would have been nice, I think, to see a younger Guy Pierce living out his wildest fantasies at age ninety-six, granted eternal youth through the interplay between cryonics and Scott’s notion of “cyber-sleep,” which didn’t ultimately make it into the film. It would have been perhaps more satisfying to know the purpose of the Engineers’ light-years-spanning biochemical warfare campaign, and the role Earth was to play in all of that mess. . . .

Still. The original Alien, for all its dramatic brilliance and classic atmosphere, got away with its fair share of hand-waving. Blade Runner went underrated for years. Given enough time, I foresee that Prometheus will stand alongside some of the great works of SF cinema as a troubling but artful achievement in the realm of cosmic nightmares.

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  1. Thanks, Steve, for steering things back toward civil discussion. It was beginning to feel a tad personal.

    Michael writes:

    "It’s because we are dreaming, enjoying our wealth. We don’t value critical reasoning, because it causes us to ask questions we don’t like. We’d rather fantasize about utterly seperate worlds, using technology with no consequences, and never really spending any time talking about what any of it means. We aren’t the same people we were forty years ago. We are no longer looking forward; and this is reflected in what we write."

    You seem to think that I'm advocating for fantasy as a means of escapism, and ignoring the wealth of vision and intellect that the science fiction field represents. When you bring up climate change, and the consequences of technology — the consequences are often the key — I think you get right to the heart of what SF is really meant for.

    My favorite SF novel of the past year (14 months?) is Tobias Buckell's ARCTIC RISING, which is a fun technothriller sitting atop several years' worth of intensive research into the future of arctic ice, climate change, and big industry — all conducted by the U.S. military. And believe me when I say, there's no science fiction writer I admire more than the late Arthur C. Clarke.

    But just because we're passionate thinkers, concerned about the future, who love to read SF . . . that doesn't mean we're allowed to look down our noses at fantasy as somehow less important, or less intelligent, than science fiction. Quite frankly, Neil Gaiman's American Gods has as much to say — if not more — about the human condition in the twenty-first century than most of the SF novels I've been picking up lately, with a few notable exceptions.

    All I ask is that you not leap to conclusions about me or my beliefs based on the perceived merits of a single, short essay. If you don't share my ideas about genre, that's fine — I haven't always felt this way, and may change my mind ten years down the road. It happens. I appreciate your taking the time to have this discussion, because it's a good thing to challenge people's ideas in a reasoned manner.

    But we can't label fantasy by the default as the "unthinking genre," inferior solely because of our own personal prejudices. It's just as valid — and often quite good.

    1. I apologize if it seemed personal. I enjoyed reading your column, and for the record I never thought you were advocating escapism yourself. I was just advocating for my own personal view of Science Fiction. When I talked about my views on where society is going, I really didn't blame that all on you, I was just trying to talk about why I think 'speculative fiction' is so important. I feel like there isn't enough of it these days.

      My personal experience with Fantasy is that more is escapist, but really there are plenty of Science Fiction books that are escapist. Quite a bit of it is. It's possible I may be wrong about how much of it is escapist, because so many books are written. I can't really objectively know how much of it is escapist, all I can do is judge by what I happen to have personally read.

      Incidentally, I completely agree with you on American Gods. It's an excellent book. I heard some time ago HBO would be working on developing it as a miniseries, which is good news since HBO usually does a good job with these things. It's true that some fantasy does say insightful things about us, and we're were going, so what I was saying was just a generalization. I think that Fantasy which does that is just as deserving of respect as Science Fiction. I just like that sort of writing, "Space Opera' is pretty escapist.

      I've enjoyed reading your column and will come back soon.

      I think that Steve is right too. The names are sort of imprecise, and mean different things to different people. It makes it hard to talk about the subject sometimes.

  2. I disagree with Alex's generalization that science fiction is little more than fantasy…strongly disagree.

    But I also get a sense that the discussion here is beginning to edge over into the personal; I'll respectfully suggest that we all remember to address the subject.

    A taxonomical point: Fantasy has long been identified as a major branch of fiction. But I think that this higher level definition – that does incorporate SF, horror, westerns, romances, etc., is being conflated here with its next level namesake that resides beside science fiction on the tree, not above it. At that point the two diverge wildly:


    Fantasy Fiction

    Science Fiction Fantasy Western Horror Mystery

    I think there needs to be a new term for the meta-level, though what it would be I have not a clue.

  3. If I were to say that a script is broken, that would be very close to saying that it is bad. Everything that you described as a problem would be the sort of thing addressed by a scriptwriter. Those parts which were good were someone else’s department. If you liked the script more then I did, that’s certainly your perogative.

    All fiction is, by definition, fantasy. I’m not sure what you’re trying to accomplish by bringing that up. How is that even relevant?

    You seem to suggest that Science Fiction is subset of Fantasy and nothing more. It is merely ray guns and that’s it. If I tell the same plot and he rides a horse and uses a gun, then I suppose it would be a Western? If the differences are so trivial, then the genre must be trivial as well. Today it is very trivial… because most people use your definition. But it was not always so.

    When Heinlein wrote “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” he wrote a book about coloniing the moon which appealed to people who wished to go do just that. I don’t recall that any part of it was ‘written to an engineer’s specifications.’ He did however, bring up a few realistic problems that we might face someday along the way. If he’d added an impossible teleportation device near the end, I wouldn’t have cared, so long as he brought up the effect it would have had on people and what it’s limitations are.

    That same book was also a source of inspiration to Libertarians. I’m not a Libertarian incidentally, but nonetheless a lot of people evidently found that the book inspired a lot of thought. Clark wrote about the consequences of alien contact. Asimov asked what the consequences of Artificial Intelligence would be, and along the way even brought up the consequences of automation. Most of these stories were not written two or three years in the future, nor did most take place on this planet.

    Because you do not wish to be limited by the sort of concerns we have today, you want to trivialize the whole genre. I don’t particularly want everyone to write the sort of thing I’m talking about, but I’m sick and tired of people defining the genre as something so totally unimportant. Today, there seem to be very few writers left who care to talk about the consequences of science, how a device will effect our culture.

    I believe I read earlier that you live in a college town in the United States. (I apologize if I remember incorrectly.) If this is so, you live in a country which is the richest in the world, and yet is also the last country in the world to end the debate on climate change. Our children are going to be effected by that a great deal. If the scientists are right, there lives will probably be shortened by it. I find it rather remarkable just how little time Americans even spend talking about it. I think I know we don’t, unfortunately.

    It’s because we are dreaming, enjoying our wealth. We don’t value critical reasoning, because it causes us to ask questions we don’t like. We’d rather fantasize about utterly seperate worlds, using technology with no consequences, and never really spending any time talking about what any of it means. We aren’t the same people we were forty years ago. We are no longer looking forward; and this is reflected in what we write.

    I don’t want everyone to go out and tackle all of that, but I respect writers who do. And it would be nice if we could get one or two people to care enough about science to include a little in the stories they write. Today, young writers want to write about fantasy because they don’t want to talk about reality. Once, it was more in fashion to write little fantasies that made us ask questions about what might happen in our own lives. But now, that’s a little too scary. We live in a society with a vanishing middle class and less opportunity then before. We are obviously damaging the world our children will live in. The worse it gets, the less we want to talk about it.

    I read, and like, a lot of fantasy novels. Actually, I’ll read just about anything. I’ve got a copy of Heart of Darkness sitting next to The Mountains of Madness. I look at these books by different people in different times, and I get a sense of where their respective cultures were going when they wrote them.

    When I look at all the fantasy out there written today, I see a culture that doesn’t want to think. I suspect that it’s a little like the way people must have felt in the last days of Rome. Their own Senate was very much like ours; they argued over everything and couldn’t govern themselves, which is pretty simliar to the gridlock we have now.

    None of that is your fault of course. My problem with classic fantasy is usually that it’s unimportant. Most seem to be about power struggles between characters, and not much else. In other words, they are harmless. Harmless sells very well. I like stuff with a little more bite in it.

    To answer your question, as to who cares? I do, very much. Perhaps nobody else does.

    I guess my disappointment with Prometheus was that it promised to be just exactly the sort of story I like, and it could have been. It was about a couple people who thought they found out who’d started our race, and wanted to go find out why. I really looked forward to seeing this movie, and I feel like they blew it. It’s very sad to look forward to seeing something for many months, and then to go to a theater and see a script that struggled to cover its material. (My opinion I know, not necessarily yours.)

    I don’t think that “using the broadest canvas possible to examine the ever-changing human condition’ is an attribute of Science Fiction. That is all of writing, in any and all genres of fiction. All of them. You’ve decided that science is unimportant, and therefore that the genre need not exist. I don’t care if you write fantasy, but if you you do, you should simply call it that. Even if you use ray guns.

    Good luck with the column, I will keep an eye out for your work.

  4. I wrote my own review for this site in which I said, well, pretty much the opposite. I did point out some of the reasons why I feel that the movie was written in such a scatterbrained manner, specifically that they changed writers too many times and a few too many cooks were involved in making this broth.

    Shameless hypertext link here:

    In an ideal world, a sequel should build on top of what the original did, but essentially sequels will have to explain what the original was trying to do. Your review frankly, sound sa bit like it's saying that it was pretty and looked good, so it's ok that it didn't make a lot of sense, didn't really fully impart its themes, and didn't develop any particularly memorable characters.

    And that is why Hollywood gets away with making so much garbage, because people feel that way. First they assign a big name Director, then they get the largest budget for special effects they possibly can, and then they hire a writer somewhere along the way. Then they fire him, hire another writer, and eventually, someday, you get a script which has the ideas of many people in it, but doesn't develop any of one of those ideas very well. It's an old story, and it's happened many times.

    The sad part for this personally, is that I'm reading a writer indicate that it's ok that the script was bad, because it looked good on the screen. If anybody should care about this kind of thing, it should be a writer. If that's an unfair assessment, then let me know, but so far that's what I've taken away from your article.

    Incidentally, Bladerunner was wonderful, which puts it in a very different category from this one, and the two should not be compared to one another. There are films which did terribly at first, and then did better later because they weren't marketed well. There are others which were good and really never got the attention they were due. Both types of films deserve more respect then this one does.

    I'm trying to share my opinion without sounding too nasty, because it's not like my opinion of the film is really so far from yours. I'm angry they botched the script, but I still watched it, and I do have a copy of the DVD around somewhere. Maybe I'll watch it again someday, but I'll always wonder about how good this film would have been if some of these idiots in Hollywood had the slightest respect for writers.

    Today, most people agree with you that science fiction is little more than fantasy with rayguns. Orson Scott Card said that himself, and many of echoed that opinion. And that's why Science Fiction is treated terribly by everyone and never gets any respect. Science Fiction can be more then that, and it should be more then that. But when the people who choose to write it don't feel that it's anything more then that, then that is all it can ever be. Science Fiction can ask questions about where we are going, and about who we are. If it did that a little more often, people would probably take Science Fiction a little more seriously.

    That's just my viewpoint on the subject. I thought it would be useful to put it up here to start a conversation. Good luck with your projects.

    1. I certainly appreciate your taking the time to put forth an opinion on the thing, but I'm not sure you're hearing me right.

      First of all, I never say that it's "okay that the script was bad." I call it "broken," if you'll recall, and go on to enumerate the ways in which it could've been vastly improved — indeed, just by implementing a number of scenes and ideas that Ridley Scott himself intended to put in the film but ultimately omitted.

      Furthermore, a lot of people would probably take offense at your argument that science fiction gets ghettoized or disrespected because it's treated like fantasy. It is, by definition (like it or not), fantasy. Maybe not capital-F, Tolkienesque fantasy with dragons and broadswords . . . but paint it whatever color you like, it's still fantasy.

      Fantasy is the literature of worlds unbounded by the notion of impossibility, sure; science fiction espouses a need to find that boundary, and push it outward with each new age's advancements in technology and ideas about what it means to be human; but seen on a long enough time scale, the restrictions placed by "Hard Science Fiction" devotees prove highly fallible, and often quite conservative.

      The same writers who will take such pains to ensure that far-future, alien-constructed megastructures are built to an engineer's demands and known laws of physics have no problem placing teleportation gateways, instantaneous superluminal communication (ansibles), or psychic phenomena in their fiction. It's hypocrisy, and the need to defend it at all speaks to the irrational desire of science fiction writers to constantly impose values on the believability of one novel over the next. There's no consistency in it.

      And besides, who cares?

      Good fiction, in my opinion, remains good fiction. Genre is an invisible line we like to draw — but it's not as important today as it once was, and I think it will continue to lose relevance as brick-and-mortar bookstores continue to fall by the wayside and postmodern storytelling strategies continue to cross-pollinate with the more traditional structures of so-called "commercial fiction."

      Innovation is the key to any artform's staying power. If the "science" portion of science fiction was so important, Geoff Ryman's Mundane SF manifesto would've gone over a tad better than it did, and we'd all be writing about tech two or three years into the future, becoming quaint again and again, suffering the embarrassment of . . . well, being science fiction writers. But that's not what science fiction is really about. It's about taking the broadest canvas available — that of fantasy — and using it with rigor and creativity to examine the ever-changing human condition.

    2. "My problem with classic fantasy is usually that it’s unimportant. Most seem to be about power struggles between characters, and not much else. In other words, they are harmless. Harmless sells very well. I like stuff with a little more bite in it."

      I missed this bit the first time I read your reply — good points. Agree completely. In fact, it seems that fantasy is headed in the opposite direction now, with folks like Martin and Meiville and Abercrombie going for the jugular, and attacking real-world problems instead of just dreaming up some maguffin-fueled quest.

      And I should mention that Card was one of the first people mention the "SF-as-subset-of-Fantasy" argument, and at the time it got me pretty fired up. I was in denial about the whole thing, and even wrote an angry blog post about it all; now I'm not so sure he wasn't right (about this one issue).

      My real point about genre is that a lot of fantasy and SF, even horror, has begun to borrow the best elements from its sister genres and blend them into one indistinguishible "speculative fiction," or "slipstream," even — some novels are so strange and fantastic as to be unclassifiable. And science fiction is as likely as any of the other ghettos to jump aboard this trend, I think.

      It could make for some interesting books in the near future. I'm loving most of what I read lately, now that I've started actively seeking out that sort of hybridized fiction. There's a certain poetry in finding the unexpected — Leviathan Wakes, for example, in which a horror trope comes stampeding out of left field 300 pages into the novel to shatter the reader's expectations of a familiar, traditional space opera. The results are . . . pretty good, I'd argue. It's a fun book.

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