Science Fiction

SCHOLARLY CRITICISM

Critical writing on science fiction films is generally traced back to Susan Sontag's 1965 essay "The Imagination of Disaster," which argued that sci-fi fantasies "normalize what is psychologically unbearable," the real Cold War specter of "collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning" (p. 112). Sontag contended that, "the interest of the films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation." What was novel here was that Sontag took the films seriously as manifestations of cultural consciousness; at the same time, she poked fun at their hackneyed dialogue and was dismissive of low-budget productions.

In 1980 Vivian Sobchack's The Limits of Infinity laid out a rigorous taxonomy of the key audiovisual elements of science fiction. In 1988 the book was rereleased as Screening Space , and a new chapter was added applying postmodern theory to the new wave of science fiction that followed in the wake of 1977's Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sobchack is also well known for her essay "The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film," which uses psychoanalytic theory to consider the repression of sexuality in sci-fi and the apparent asexuality of most of the male heroes.

First published in 1985, Sobchack's essay was reprinted in Annette Kuhn's 1990 anthology Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema , a seminal volume that marked the growing scholarly interest in science fiction films. The volume included essays by J. P. Telotte, Barbara Creed, and Scott Bukatman, who would publish the influential Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction in 1993. As Telotte aptly explains in Science Fiction Film , in Terminal Identity Bukatman examines films such as Metropolis , Invasion of the Body Snatchers , Blade Runner , and Tron (1982) and "suggests that the genre 'narrates the dissolution of the very ontological structures that we usually take for granted,' and that in the wake of this 'dissolution' it offers striking evidence of 'both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen"' (p. 56).

Kuhn's volume also reprinted an important essay by Constance Penley, "Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia," which had first appeared in 1986 in a special issue of the feminist journal Camera Obscura . Penley took Freud's primal scene as a template for understanding time travel in the mainstream Terminator as well as in Chris Marker's avant-garde classic La Jetée (1962, remade as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam in 1995). The emergence of feminist interest in science fiction was a striking turn of events, as the genre had long been considered the terrain of male fans, geeks, and cultists. If Blade Runner could almost single-handedly take credit for the postmodernist turn in science fiction criticism, it was in large part the "monstrous-feminine" (as Barbara Creed put it) of Alien that inspired feminist interest in science fiction films in the 1980s and 1990s. Alien included not only the first female action hero but also a monster explicitly marked as female, whose motivation was not world domination, as in the classic "bug-eyed monster" movies of the 1950s, but rather procreation. (A similar maternal twist had appeared in a 1967 Star Trek episode, "The Devil in the Dark.")

The early twenty-first century critics most interested in science fiction can be split into two camps. New media theorists are less interested in science fiction as a genre per se than they are in theorizing the cultural impact of new digital technologies. Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), for example, is of interest for its blurring of the boundaries between digital representation/gaming and reality. The other dominant strain of critical writing comes from authors doing ethnographic research on fan cultures. This research, again, is not always genre specific. Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture included significant work on Star Trek fans, and he continued the topic with Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek , co-authored with John Tulloch.

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