On Sci-Fi Themes
by Dr. George H. Elder
When pondering the many Science Fiction movies and books I’ve found particularly interesting, I am drawn toward what was most compelling in their theme—as in, what is the book’s central idea? Reducing any complex work to a bromide is a dubious exercise that often loses a lot in translation. Nonetheless, I could distill Star Wars to being primarily about where the quest for power leads, and Predator as the interplay between technology and the primal aspects of our nature. Of course, one could debate these reductions, but in general, story themes are what help us identify with a given work.
We systematically learn story forms during our youth, and develop narrative templates that guide our subsequent expectations and expressions with regard to basic story forms, as in the old Schema Theory paradigms. This is not to say that we cannot learn new themes along the way, but we tend to be guided by the forms we are most familiar with.
When writing Genesis, I contemplated what would be a compelling central idea before I began the work. I could think of no more important theme than sustaining existence itself, and thus I set the story near the end of time—when the universe is entering into the final stages of an expansion that will end everything in an entropic whimper. The goal of most of the species alive during this period becomes one of preserving the possibility of continued existence, and thus the desperate search for a means of accomplishing this end.
As one can imagine, the first step in a story like this is consulting the available science. This is a problematic exercise in that theoretical physics is constantly in flux, and what is widely considered plausible today will be found dubious tomorrow. Nonetheless, I accepted the current standard notion that the universe is headed toward an ultimate entropic dissolution via the vehicle of an infinite expansion.
My academic background includes formal work in Classical-era metaphysics, modern psychology (including AI), and cognitive neuropsychology, and I used this knowledge to examine the interplay between thought, matter, and energy. Thus the text proposes the existence of an enlightened group of “Seekers” that dwell within a realm at the very cusp of our time/space continuum. Although very rare, Seekers can develop within all sentient species during any period of its evolution, and they are usually individuals who study nature, signs, and/or formal studies (e.g., mathematics, physics, philosophy, etc.). It is their quest for knowledge that ultimately allows them to understand how thought, matter, and energy interact, and in so doing they become entities that can manipulate being with their ideas.
The Seekers normally withdraw from corporeal affairs once they understand their roles in helping sustain existence, and are quite content to allow nature to run its course. In the story, however, one of the Seekers was wounded while coming to awareness by members of his species that were frightened by his growing power. He became unhinged and nearly obliterated his home world during a blind rage. He atones, and during this process, reaches out to the entire universe, linking every living being in a metaphysical experience that transcends time and space. Realizing how powerful and terribly flawed he is, the wounded Seeker opts for permanent stasis, and locks himself away in a place that has long been forgotten.
The wounded Seeker’s vast power and outreach becomes the stuff of countless legends, and some opine that this entity may be able to summon enough energy to recreate another universal cycle. As it stands, the mass/energy dynamics are insufficient to counter the ongoing expansion, thus finding and activating the dormant Seeker becomes the endgame of several species. Now, once this basic premise was evolved, the goal switched to finding a compelling storyline, and I selected a quest format, which is only natural considering the central idea.
In this case, we have one of the many time/space missions that are searching for the Seeker, being inexplicably diverted to a planet inhabited by a stone-age culture. Here they encounter an outcast woman named Kara, and so begins an adventure that will take the crew through many episodes as they seek to complete a nearly hopeless mission. The beauty of quest stories is that one can have a multitude of episodes that are linked to the central theme via time and location, and this allows for some very dynamic and fast-moving plot shifts.
The central problem, however, was to develop a set of characters who would change and develop over time, which is a key element in all Sci-Fi stories. To this end we find Kara (a peculiarly aware savage), Anita (a towering four hundred-pound female engineer of incredible power and speed), Ezra (a small, black telepath), and Ral (the ship’s arrogant AI system). The characters have a number of interpersonal conflicts, and these are revealed throughout the various episodes. Of course, the focus is always on change and development. For example, Anita is a pacifist, but she eventually becomes a warrior. Ral considers most biological beings inane, but he eventually opts to become like them. Ezra is a coward, but he changes into a character who defies his crewmates.
The primary conflict revolves around those who want the universe to be rekindled, and those who are quite content to see it all end. The nihilists believe life is focused on desire and pain, and many current religious overtones coincide with this notion. The champions of existence are desperate to succeed, as might many of us be, given their situation. The most advanced species are soon engaged in overt and covert conflict, and entire star systems are laid waste by technologies beyond any I have seen in a Sci-Fi movie. For example, there is a Mass Transfer Device that is larger than our solar system, and confronting it requires several thousand ships.
The crew becomes a plaything in a destabilized and crumbling universe. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is that many of those we have thought were good are revealed to be devious and evil, while some of those who seemed bad are revealed to be honorable and good. These surprises keep our interest and leave us pondering about moral issues that have no easy resolutions. So we begin with a central idea, focus on change-oriented episodes related to the idea, and eventually reach a conclusion that addresses the book’s basic theme. As for what that conclusion is…well, that will speak for itself.