Interstellar Odyssey

Many thanks to D.K. Holm for putting together your March cover story “Interstellar Odyssey,” complete with book review, analysis, email interview (“knowledge fiction” and “foreign countries” were particularly insightful), and the surprise bonus of comments from the artist. I did not read the book (yet) but I was surprised to find important themes completely absent from Holm’s article, even though they appear to be anticipated by classical motifs such as the water of oblivion/forgetfulness.

The modern prototype of the identity theme in SF is Body Snatchers, a thinly veiled expression of ’50s anti-commie hysteria (losing one’s individuality to the insipid group that claims to bring a peaceful world), which can also be viewed as adolescent angst about conforming to the mainstream. A more recent exploration of the critical question “who am I?” can be found in Total Recall (both the original and its mundane remake), which initially presents another eternal theme, “is this all just a dream?”

The latter theme is common in fantasy or morality tales, where a fantastical adventure teaches important lessons before the protagonist returns back to the starting point, as if nothing had happened. This is the theme of Jumanji and its quasi-sequel Zathura, as well as The Wizard of Oz, and, a century before that, The Saragossa Manuscript. However, modern psychology has brought the dream/reality conundrum into SF in films such as Flatliners, Matrix, Vanilla Sky, and Inception. Identity and the real/unreal duality have taken on an additional flavor with the advent of robots: Bicentennial Man, A.I., Transcendence, etc.

The Time Machine was presented by H.G. Wells as an exploration of “did it really happen?” with the flower at the end as affirmation. (And Borges once speculated whether Wells took that literary device from Coleridge, who was in turn modifying a passage from Jean Paul’s Geist.) With a nod to Sontag, it’s hard to avoid saying that time travel seems to have been reduced to a motif of remorse, ranging from personal regret (the 2002 remake of Time Machine, as well as the convoluted Predestination) to “the world took a wrong turn” (Star Trek IV, A Sound of Thunder, MIB 3), or both (Time Cop, Deja Vu, Loopers).

Kudos to Chris for highlighting the work of Brett and Benjamin.

—Martin Schell MAT ’77

Klaten, Central Java