Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Golden Apples of Europa

"Remember the Shaman when he used to say
Man is the dream of the dolphin."
- Enigma

Why did the time traveler launch himself "into futurity" and why did Professor Challenger scrabble up to a jungle plateau? Why did Verne's men of science dive to the depths of a prehistoric hollow earth or bombard themselves at the moon?

Why do we dream so much blander these days? As late as the 60s Star Trek vowed "to boldly go where no man has gone before" paying lip-service to the old fantasies of purposeful scientific exploration. Yet increasingly, the petty impulses of the mindless glut of human mediocrity have infected science fiction, obscuring the drive for knowledge, the sense of wonder at the possibilities of scientific progress, with animalistic concerns. The science fiction heroes of today are defined by rank, whether military or social. Instead of intrepid explorers, they are presented (and glorified) as mercenary, wholly-owned employees performing maintenance on corporate assets. Instead of intellectuals pushing the boundaries of knowledge, we are presented with hired muscle protecting their families and tribe. Substitute lasers for machine guns.

There is purpose to this obfuscation, and that purpose is lack of purpose. It is the endless ratcheting of thought back toward our bestial scramble for subhuman goals, the glorification of tribal loyalties and social interdependence. Entertainment corporations present us with endless science fiction heroes and heroines whose motivation has nothing to do with science fiction, who fight for flag and country or to protect their mates or offspring, who, in other words, do nothing a baboon wouldn't in their place. This intentional deadening of aspiration is both symptomatic and causative of our postmodernist anticritical denial of progress. It stems from the masses' bovine complacency and the upper classes' desperation to maintain that complacency, and serves to normalize any intellectual dissent, from Disneyed cradle to dishonorable grave. Be a father, be a mother, be a dutiful child. Be indebted. Be an employee, be a boss, be a wage-slave. Be popular, be richer than your neighbor, be an owner. Be owned. Be shackled. Even if you get away from Earth, remember, we own you.

Be a thinker, be a dreamer, be an individual. Be an explorer. Or let's remember at least how to imagine it.
Let's remember that science fiction, borne along the frenzied burst of scientific progress over a century ago which made all things seem possible, shared its spirit with Mallory's prosaic tautology of real-world exploration: "because it's there."

It's hard to find info on obscure sci-fi stories, even if they're by not-so-obscure authors, but the old spirit used to break through here and there. Arthur C. Clarke* once wrote of a space-man trapped in a public relations campaign, fighting over funding for the space program against the crass demands of the Malthusian starving masses. Efremov's Andromeda touted communist idealism while also glorying in intellect's unending thirst for exploration. Stanislav Lem, Carl Sagan and others more or less assumed that if we do receive extraterrestrial sentient transmissions, intellectual curiosity would dictate that we drop whatever else we're doing and investigate.
Bradbury's old short story The Golden Apples of the Sun lacks a Wikipedia entry, perhaps not surprisingly since it's far from his best work. It does however perfectly illustrate what popular SF-derived entertainment lacks, the old mentality of progress. A specially-designed and reinforced spaceship dips into the sun's corona for a handful of plasma, a golden apple. Why? Because it's there.
That's it. That's all we need. Not for profit, not for food, not for tribal superiority. No invading forces justifying our actions, no appeals to reproductive or altruistic instinct. Just intelligence pushing its way into the cosmos. We are thought, self-divining purpose, the teleological ever-sharpening pinnacle of anentropic rebellion against the universe.

Europa Report, I would wager, is not a popular film. It is packed. It is stark. It relies on both the sort of understatement the imperceptive general public sneer at and the sheer density of information which over-reaches their attention span. It does not rely on sexual archetypes or social presuppositions and instead populates the spaceship with rational, proactive introverts. It is slick, it is stylish, it is cool, it is cold. It is Science Fiction. Give it a chance and see the higher aspirations which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney can never quite address. "To keep the mission alive, to push the discovery further." This is not a life-affirming movie about a girl next door doing her job who just happens to find herself in outer space. Survivalism alone, mere animal self-preservation, is beneath it as it would have been beneath Professor Challenger. It's about space itself, about the final frontier which has fallen by the wayside as space operas and science fantasies have constricted our imaginations to reproductions of the status quo set in space malls.
There have been and will be better Science Fiction movies, but Europa Report is so emblematic of the genre that it's a must-see for any nerd who's ever wanted to find out what else is out there. Watch it, and remember what this whole thing is supposed to be about.

* I was wrong of course, it was George R.R. Martin's Slide Show.
P.S.: And if you saw the title of this post and thought "boobies!" you're a bad, bad man. Welcome to the club.

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