Science fiction’s presence in pop culture outgrows its niche
Science fiction isn’t just for “geeks” anymore. As the technology-based genre becomes more mainstream, more people are finding themselves enchanted by it.
Science fiction traditionally focuses on the impact of imaginary technologies or sciences on humans. Books that qualify as science fiction, such as H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” have been around since the beginning of the twentieth century. The genre has come in many forms since then, including magazines, films and television shows. There are even whole conventions devoted to the genre, such as the ConClave 30 convention being held in Lansing this weekend.
Fans say that with blockbusters like this summer’s “War of the Worlds” remake and a significant number of science fiction-based shows in fall’s prime time TV lineup, such as CBS’ “Threshold,” the genre is more accessible than ever.
“Most kids like to think they’re at the cutting edge of the culture, living ahead, at the future now,” said Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, a co-editor of “Science Fiction Studies,” an academic journal devoted to the scholarly study of science fiction. “It’s how styles are set, particularly if they’re tech. They’ve bought their computers, they’re on the Internet – which is essentially futuristic.”
Csicsery-Ronay said in the 1960s and 1970s, a dominant theme in science fiction was computers taking over every part of the world, and now that the technology is prevalent in almost every aspect of life, science fiction has become even more relevant to popular culture.
“Since it has become as mainstream as it has, it’s not ‘exclusive’ to geeks anymore,” said Tom Barber, the founder of the ConClave conventions. “Let’s face it – with movies and stuff, lots and lots of people have watched ‘Star Wars’ and have enjoyed it.”
Don’t call it…
Csicsery-Ronay said science fiction is generally an adventure-romance that incorporates imaginary technologies and imaginary science into human drama.
Csicsery-Ronay, also a professor of English at DePauw University in Indiana, said the genre often embellishes on themes already in popular culture or politics. For example, in this summer’s blockbuster hit “War of the Worlds,” a remake of the 1953 film, director Stephen Spielberg added a story line in which the Martians were already embedded on Earth in cells. Csicsery-Ronay said this could reflect present-day fears of terrorist cells embedded in America.
“Folks now treat science fiction as genre of film and literature that captures the way everyone’s life has become technological,” Csicsery-Ronay said.
He said there are two subsections that could fall under the “science fiction” title: “science fiction” and a newer “sci-fi.”
“The purist, ‘science fiction’ faction, sees science fiction really has to be with no magic or supernatural elements at all,” Csicsery-Ronay said. “There can be marvelous things, but we always have a feeling that they can be explained, someday, in a scientific way.”
He said on the other side is “sci-fi,” which is science fiction that might have one or two ideas in it which can’t be explained, such as “the force” in the “Star Wars” movies.
Csicsery-Ronay said another famous science fiction theme is aliens, which qualify because they are portrayed like human beings in that it has some form of consciousness and willpower. Movies like the “Alien” series and TV shows like “Invasion” are examples of this.
“The alien is really generally about dealing with the folks that a culture either stigmatizes or is afraid of or the counterculture views as must be embraced,” Csicsery-Ronay said.
Books such as the “Harry Potter” series and “The Lord of the Rings” are considered magical fantasy, not science fiction, Csicsery-Ronay said.
Science fiction followers have said those books have most often opened a gateway into the science fiction genre.
Ray Walsh, the owner of Curious Book Shop and Archives Book Shop, said he has recently noticed an increase in interest in the genre.
“Harry Potter books have also caused people to enjoy fantastic fiction more, so that’s helped the growth in the field,” said Walsh.
HAL to “Halo”
Technology has come a long way from the “HAL 9000” supercomputer in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” and science fiction is getting a push from another venue – video games.
Games such as “Halo” and “Star Wars Battlefront,” use science fiction as a springboard for the theme of the game.
“A lot of the games that are coming out now, even though they’re not too far into the forward, are letting in new forms of weaponry, or just items you can use in the games,” said Mike Zietlow, 22, a Fast Repair and Gaming employee.
He said he’s noticed that these games help to push the genre into the mainstream.
“It doesn’t go all the way up to people dressing up and waiting for ‘Star Wars’ to come out,” Zietlow said. “But it’s still introducing people to new ideas.”
Does this match my Lightsaber?
The person behind the mask in line for “Star Wars” isn’t necessarily a science fiction fanatic – sometimes it’s just a teenager who really likes the movie.
“Costuming is part of it, but not all of science fiction,” said Elizabeth Huffman, a one-time professional costumer and currently a chair of the ConClave convention.
A highlight of the ConClave conventions is the masquerade ball, which many people dress up for.
“Some people spend thousands designing the pieces and they’re beautiful,” Huffman said.
Barber said the traditional dress for the daytime convention is jeans and a T-shirt.
“There is a percentage of people – I won’t say it’s huge – that wear costumes all weekend long,” Barber said. “Some do several different ones over the course of the weekend.”
The future of science fiction
Since technology is available in every form from cell phones to medical devices, there are two motifs growing in popularity in science fiction literature: nanotechnology and “The Singularity.”
Csicsery-Ronay said nanotechnology is artificial intelligence machines working together that are capable of building almost anything from scratch.
“Tech people are really researching this, none of its promises have come yet,” he said.
“The Singularity” is a popular theme that focuses on the point when all the computerized devices in the world reach a certain level of complexity and develop intelligence which will allow them to separate themselves from human activity, Csicsery-Ronay said.
“There’s different views about what it will do, but almost everyone agrees that humans will not know what is going on,” he said.
Csicsery-Ronay said science fiction will probably continue toward the mainstream, with more and more a turn to “sci-fi.”
Longtime fans said they are glad the genre is getting more attention.
“Sometimes, those who have been into it longer will be elitist, with books as more important than videos,” Huffman said.
But long-time science fiction fan Tim Murphy said he’s happy with the additional publicity.
“It’s bringing people out of the closet who have loved science fiction for years,” Murphy said.
Elizabeth Huffman, one of the chairs of ConClave 30, to be held in Lansing this weekend, joked that this is often how she looks at 2 a.m. on day two of the convention. Sci-fi books, characters and movies are making their way into mainstream pop culture.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH FRANK · The State News
Source: The State News, Written By: Lauren Phillips