Interstellar Odyssey (continued)

Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth makes frequent references to Greek and Roman classics. Illustration by Édouard Riou.

Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth makes frequent references to Greek and Roman classics. Illustration by Édouard Riou.

A poster for the 2013 film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire features Finnick Odair as a sort of retiarius, or gladiator, trident in hand.

A poster for the 2013 film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire features Finnick Odair as a sort of retiarius, or gladiator, trident in hand.

Apollo (god? alien?) torments the crew in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

Apollo (god? alien?) torments the crew in the 1967 Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

Several essays in Classical Traditions concern science fiction movies or have something to do with film adaptations of SF. Cinema as a subject first broke into the university curriculum in the ’70s, as one of the many fruits of campus disruption and the demand for an expanded canon. Including film analysis in the anthology makes sense when one reflects that motion pictures came into existence as a technology at the same time as SF’s first real popularizers, Verne and Wells, and that some of the earliest films—both commercial tales and their predecessors, what Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions”—were exotic fantasies of space travel and other stretches of the imagination, especially in the films of magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès. The books of Wells and Verne were manifestations of both a fascination with and a fear of technology, and the clash of science and society sparked by the Industrial Revolution. The first films themselves were torn between pure standoffish documentary (the Lumière brothers), in which the “real” was allowed to be the drama, and the romance of fantasy science fiction (Méliès), between pure documentary recording and playful or recreational fairy tales, as scholars such as Walter Benjamin have pointed out. As a genre in general, SF seems to fall broadly into romance, which also accommodates the novel of ideas, on the one hand capturing the thrill of adventure and exploration while on the other contemplating meaning and society. 

The dual birth pains of science fiction and cinema raise a crucial question. Has the bifurcation of SF into the fraternal twinship of literature and cinema degraded a once-sophisticaed genre? Your average SF fan, especially one who came of age when wearing a pair of black-framed glasses was a sign of physical inferiority rather than a badge of hipsterism, is likely to decry the handling of SF “classics” at the ignorant hands of studio honchos. Following the pinnacle of cinematic SF, as found in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, comes a long litany of disappointment—the Aliens, the Predators, the Transformers, and hundreds of other episodes of cultural pabulum gussied up with special effects.

Something similar has happened in comic book adaptations. The DC heroes of the ’50s and ’60s, especially Superman and certain other characters, were science fiction figures, often battling aliens bent on destroying or enslaving Earth. The Marvel comics under the sway of artist-writer Jack Kirby had a visionary “sense of wonder” about galaxies and their denizens. Comic book fans are often upset when a new adaptation comes along, their ire often due to the mishandling of the subject by people who don’t understand—or don’t care about—the comic books that are being pillaged. Marvel comics adaptations have become video-game style battles for dominance taking place in mythical worlds or on the streets of Manhattan. 

A vivid example exists in the post–Tim Burton Batman films, two of which were directed by costume designer–turned-director Joel Schumacher. His Batmen seemed more influenced by the campy ’60s TV show than the noirish comic books—with Schumacher emphasizing the heroes posing in nipple-flexing costumery. Schumacher once bragged that he didn’t read the original Batman comics because he didn’t want his mind sullied by familiarity with the source.

What we see in this mélange is that the SF film has become a subset of the war film. To have SF, first you have to have science. Unfortunately, for the new war-oriented SF films, the science dwindles into irrelevancy; what matters is the monsters, the weapons, and the explosions. It’s as if Hollywood has taken The War of the Worlds, dropped the worlds, and stuck with the war.

There are historic and modern commercial reasons for this cinematic shift. War has indeed been part of the genre since its modern beginnings. Edgar Rice Burroughs invented the “space romance,” with its battles over extraterrestrial territory, a standard later taken up by many other writers, including E.E. “Doc” Smith with his Lensman series. Robert Heinlein often concentrated on the psychology of war while embedding his characters in strange intergalactic conflicts. When the SF movie took off as a genre in the ’50s, space travel (Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M) was eventually pushed aside by dramatic conflict, with man fighting flying saucers in the nation’s capital or battling giant ants in the Arizona desert. 

By the time George Lucas came along in the mid-’70s, he also had made a shift from the Orwellian intricacies of his dystopian THX-1138 to the war strain of SF found in Burroughs and Smith. The result was Star Wars. Though Star Wars is by itself a near-perfect little genre film, its prequel-sequels, heavily reliant on digital bytes and not on actors, were unable to avoid descending into torpor, inspiring scores of imitators to focus on the war and forget about the science.

Another reason for the shift to war is that movie studios like franchises because they think audiences like seeing the same thing over and over again. Predators and Aliens keep coming, long after the monsters themselves have been destroyed. Too often the narrative is betrayed by the need to extract residuals, toy store sales, and brand-name dominance. In Hollywood, wars never end, nothing is concluded, no one really dies, and “endings” are a falsehood. 

A notable exception to this sad catalog of warmongering is Interstellar, a science fiction tale with actual science in it, featuring speculation about how the universe functions outside the “gravity” of Newtonian physics. Clearly influenced by 2001, the film is less the brainchild of its director Christopher Nolan than of the theoretical physics of Kip Thorne and the interests of producer Lynda Obst, who collaborated with Thorne on the film Contact, based on the Carl Sagan novel. Like the editors of Astounding, the movie demands that the science be plausible (though that doesn’t mean that it can’t be questioned, depending as it does on the wobbly world of string theory).

Of all the weird, otherworldly, and fantastic ideas in Classical Traditions, perhaps the most provocative is the suggestion that the link between SF and the classics is actually a two-way street—that some classics can be read as a form of SF. As Weiner writes, “Just as SF concerns itself with the moral ambiguities created in the wake of speculative science, it also explores the tensions between new developments and established traditions, and between modern rationalism and old superstitions.” Classical literature is brimming with this sort of thing—Odysseus defying Poseidon, Prometheus stealing fire from Olympus, Hephaestus forging the Golden Maidens. Who knows? Maybe the first time traveler was actually a Greek magician named Homer.

Painting by Vincent Di Fate for <i>Reed</i> magazine.

Painting by Vincent Di Fate for Reed magazine.

Ares and the End of All

from the cover artist

For more than four decades, Vincent Di Fate has held an international reputation as a leader in science-fiction and astronomical art. He is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, a winner of the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, and his paintings have been featured on the cover of hundreds of science fiction novels. He is the author of Infinite Worlds, a comprehensive history of science fiction art in America, published in 1997.

My cover painting depicts the confluence of myth and prophecy.

To the ancient Greeks, Ares was the god of war, exulting in the violence and chaos of armed combat. An Olympian, he was the son of Zeus and Hera. By contrast, his half-sister Athena was drawn to the intellectual side of warfare—its tactics and organization—and preferred to take dominion over the ideals for which war was waged.  

Although their mythical exploits were essentially the same, the Romans called Ares Mars, and it was from the planet Mars—so named in honor of this deity for its baleful reddish hue—that author H.G. Wells chose to have his invading army hail in his classic 1897 novel The War of the Worlds. Perhaps the choice was further motivated by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observation of canali on the Martian surface some 20 years earlier. Schiaparelli’s term meant grooves or channels in his native tongue, but to the English-speaking world it was widely misreported as canals, suggesting a complex irrigation system of possible intelligent design.   

Wells’ novel of warring worlds is my favorite science fiction story, and I have had the good fortune to create pictures for it several times during the course of my long career as an illustrator. The Martians descend upon the earth not with swords and pikes, but with walking machines that emit a disintegrating heat ray and voluminous clouds of black, toxic gas—new and revolutionary methods of combat to a world which had not yet seen the horror of WWI. Sixteen years later, in the novel The World Set Free, Wells would suggest a weapon far more terrifying—one he called the atom bomb.

—Vincent Di Fate