Lately I’ve been indulging in an activity which can probably act as a depression-barometer, that is, watching lots of science fiction. It has surely been written many times how science fiction abstracts the complexities of our world and cleanses them of our emotional attachments, providing us with the objectivity that modern life otherwise robs us of. If it hasn’t, you are reading an article that might be quoted a lot in the future.
The Hitchikers Guide To The Galaxy was written by Douglas Adams in the late 1970’s and has reappeared in various guises, namely the original radio series, novels and most recently a movie (2005). Adams was without question a superb humorist and visionary science fiction writer. In this piece of work, through the destruction of the Earth, he provides protagonist Aurthur Dent with perspective; his home being demolished seemed less important when he contemplated the loss of his entire home planet.
This abstraction of an ordinary man from all he knew paves the way for bigger questions such as what ‘it’ is all about. There are the classic lines such as ‘isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it?’. His musings about ‘Life, The Universe, and Everything’ must have been cut short when he was told of how a bunch of highly intelligent pan dimensional beings had spent 7.5million years waiting for an answer to that very question, only to realise that it was the question itself that was more interesting and challenging to discover.
The eponymous book within the book tells us that Dolphins are the more intelligent species because they simply got on and enjoyed their existence, all the while mankind was missing the messages from the dolphins and being manipulated by lab mice. For me, the book is almost an allegorical introduction to the suggestion that we all ought to turn our minds to what is truly important, and possibly consider a life based around Buddhism.
More recently, I have enjoyed other sci-fi works such as ‘District 9’ which seems to be about apartheid (South African accents, and all). The enjoyable movie ‘In Time’ “uncovers” societies inequalities by transferring wealth into life expectancy which can be traded, and in the case of the film, stolen. This, you would think is a pretty unsubtle (if dramatically pleasing) abstraction, in that you really are, in the real and painful world you switch on your TV to avoid, actually going to live for less time if you are poor than if you have money. This is something which is likely to become more pronounced as healthcare becomes a luxury and the life-expectancy of a working class person drops to the point that the wheezing, allergic, ill-fed proletariat are unlikely to waste any of their few years planning any sort of revolution.
My most recent sci-fi indulgence was ‘Elysium’. Some call this an example of Hollywood pushing its liberal agenda, others have said that the film is a dystopian ‘worst case scenario’ of what ‘Obama Care’ will result in, i.e. necessary rationing of resources. The film, if you have not seen it, shows a future Earth where the rich live on an orbiting space-station (called Elysium) on which exists the technology to non-invasively cure any disease. On Earth, health care understanding is advanced, and for example, death is accurately predictable; at one point Matt Damon’s character is told that he should take some pills he is given for a radiation overdose for 5 days when he will die of multiple organ failure.
There are many takes on what Elysium means, but for me the bottom line is that care exists but is not shared. Access to care is not equitable and given the simplicity of treatment (which involves getting into a static machine which detects and fixes your illness) the explanation can only be one of ideology.
In the UK we pride ourselves in the NHS and even Nigel Lawson, a Conservative MP who served as Secretary of State under Margaret Thatcher, called the NHS “the closest thing the English have to a religion” (presumably, apart from religion). The system itself was first proposed in 1909 but didn’t materialise until 1948 and has arguably never quite got it right. What it has done though, albeit imperfectly, is provided care to all, whether you’ve a bean in your pocket or not. This system is currently being eroded through underfunding and subtle ‘not-quite-free-at-the-point-of-delivery’ changes and so we Brits probably have as much cause to sit up and pay attention where Elysium is concerned, as our trans-Atlantic cousins do. It might not have ever been perfect, but the idea of it not being there is unimaginable and gives us a true sense of ownership of the notion that the measure of a civilised society is how it treats it’s weakest members.
It would seem therefore that in the sci-fi genre at least, art is not so much imitating life as it is placing a pair of firmly gripped hands around life’s throat and shaking it from the frustration at it not being able to see the blindingly obvious.
Sit up and take note, although do it selectively; if ‘Sunshine’ is on your watch-list, I have it on good authority that flying a space ship into it will not revive a dying sun.