Is Science Fiction Fundamentally Retro?

I’m always worrying about what the internet is doing to our minds and so I was reading Jaron Lanier’s new book, Who Owns The Future? when I came across a paragraph that had nothing to do with the internet, at least not directly.

Lanier writes, “The struggle [against human obsolescence] might be against aliens (War of the Worlds), plain old evil (Star Wars), or artificial intelligence, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, The Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, and many more. In all cases, science fiction is fundamentally retro, in that it re-creates the setting of early human evolution, when human character was first formed in a setting where meaning was inseparable from survival.”

I suppose I knew it all along but had never thought of it in just those words. Science fiction … fundamentally retro? Lanier  isn’t echoing the common whinge that science fiction’s visions of the future are out of date. He’s saying something closer to what Philip K. Dick said in that interview I quoted from, wouldn’t you know it, just last week!

“[A]lthough it’s set in the future, in many ways they’re living like our ancestors did.  I mean, the hardware is in the future, the scenery’s in the future, but the situations are really from the past.”

Lanier and Dick assert that science fiction portrays man’s primal struggles. All the glitzy hardware, wetware, and software is just ornamentation. Lipstick on a pig, if you will. This is clearly true in that science fiction novels almost always hinge on a literal fight for survival. But Lanier takes the analysis a step further. He says the enemy, in its legion guises, is human obsolescence, and the prize is meaning.

At its bleakest and most banal, science fiction can imply that the meaning of life is survival, period. Stephen Baxter sometimes heads in this direction when he’s tangled up in his genetic determinism thing (see Evolution, which is nonetheless well worth reading). But the equation makes more sense if you invert it: Survival is the meaning of life. Survival must then be understood as a process not a prize, the telos of life which drags out that little verb “is” for as long as the protagonist is humanly able to stand it. In the process he or she finds meaning.

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Henry Newbolt! Zowie! This is of course an old, old way of thinking about meaning. “For when the great scorer comes to write against your name, He marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”(1) Survival is precisely the meaning of life in Christian teleology: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”(2) Jesus Christ is (eternally is, up to and beyond the limits of human endurance, hanging on the Cross for all time) the Survivor whose physical resurrection gives ultimate meaning to our own lives.

Thowwy. (Picture me thumbnail in mouth, slightly sulky, anticipating anti-Christian blowback.) I’ve got this confounded tendency to take any argument in the world and cart it off in the direction of the Resurrection.

But in one way or another, in whatever disguise, isn’t that what all science fiction writers are doing when they depict life-or-death struggles against inhuman enemies?

Fundamentally retro. Lanier locates the original struggle for survival in those funky paleolithic Lost Years that are held to explain pretty much everything about our species, from polyphony to our gut bacteria to a little girl’s preference for pink. But we needn’t go back anything like so far. The ur-struggle between good and evil, life and death, happened 2000 years ago in Judea, and science fiction is still ringing with it, more so than any other genre where the stakes are smaller and the choices less stark. That, perhaps, is why science fiction can rightly be called retro. And that is one of the many reasons why I love this genre. Lipstick and curly tail and mucky trotters and all.


1. This quotation comes from sportswriter Grantland Rice, quoth Google. Who knew? Not moi.

2. 1 Corinthians 15.

(Ed. Note:  discussion of the subject at hand is encouraged:  anti-Christian blow-back will be malleted)

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.

Previous Article

Ten Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters Before They Can Stay In Your Story

Next Article

A Science Fiction Primer

You might be interested in …

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.