U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Science Fiction and History

“History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine.”

— Ken MacLeod, Introduction to the American Edition of The Star Fraction.[1]

“I have seen the future and it doesn’t work.”

— Tagline for the movie Zardoz (1974)

[This post is part of the USIH Blog’s participation in this year’s edition of the For the Love of Film blogathon, hosted today by This Island Rod. This year’s theme is science fiction. And, as always, the purpose of the blogathon is to raise money to help the National Film Preservation Society restore a film. This year, we’re raising money to restore the 1918 Strand Comedy Cupid in Quarantine. Please consider donating to the effort here.]

On Wednesday, Andrew Hartman used “Occupation,” an episode of the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, to illustrate the possibilities that science fiction presents for political criticism. Yesterday, Tim Lacy explored the initial critical reception of Star Wars (1977). Earlier today, Ray Haberski considered Ray Bradbury and the idea of the “butterfly effect” in science, Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder,” and the 2005 film adaptation of that story.

One of the things that tie these posts together is history. Not only are the posts each historical (not surprising on a history blog), but Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and “A Sound of Thunder” themselves are also each deeply about history. BSG concerns the end of the Twelve Colonies, which are destroyed by the Cylons at the start of the show, and the attempt to save a civilization and found it anew. And since the search for Earth is part of that effort, there is a sense – ratified, however unsatisfactorily, by the conclusion of the series – that BSG is also somehow concerned with the history of our human civilization. Star Wars is a tale from the middle of an epic that involves the rise and fall of an empire, though audiences at the time were probably unaware that they’d eventually get to see that whole, epic history on screen (however unsatisfactory its beginning turned out to be). Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder” is very much about the working of history in general.

BSG and Star Wars are both examples of space opera, a subgenre of science fiction whose vast canvases easily lend themselves to explorations of fictive histories. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books are probably the most famous example of space opera as exploration of history. The time travel subgenre that “A Sound of Thunder” represents is also frequently used to think about the nature of history of the relationship of past, present, and future. There are countless wonderful examples of time travel being put to this end. My favorite cinematic one might be Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” (1962).

But the Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod makes a much more general point in his quotation above: all science fiction in a sense deals with history and, in so doing, at least implicitly, is driven by theories of history. MacLeod makes this observation in context of introducing his first novel, The Star Fraction (1995). It is, among other things, a kind of exploration the materialist theory of history. Though a socialist, MacLeod had had little use for the “actually existing” state socialism of the Soviet Union that had just disappeared at the time he wrote the novel. But MacLeod was also convinced that actually existing capitalism was catastrophic. The Star Fraction is “haunted by [an] uncomfortable question”: “What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?”

MacLeod thus makes his book’s “invisible engine” quite visible in his author’s introduction. And sometimes the theories of history in works of science fiction are almost explicit. Asimov’s Foundation series is an exploration of the relationship between structural factors and “great men” in the creation of history. Hari Seldon’s psychohistory allows humanity to predict the future, but it eventually turns out they cannot predict the arrival of an unusual individual who has the power to affect history.

But often these theories are only implicit…or entirely muddled. John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) is a fine example of the latter. Zardoz is the sort of film that is sometimes politely referred to as a “passion project.” Following the extraordinary success of Deliverance (1972), Boorman was able to make pretty much any film he wanted. He chose to write, direct, and produce Zardoz. Though some reviewers liked the film — most notably Roger Ebert, who compared the movie, in its ability to perplex audiences, to Last Year at Marienbad — most other reviewers were not so kind. Pauline Kael labeled it “the most gloriously fatuous movie since The Oscar.” But it quickly developed the reputation as a kind of glorious mess, frequently making lists both of the worst movies of all time and of great science fiction films of the ’70s. Before that decade was out it had already gained a kind of cult status on the repertory film circuit. “When I see the film now, I’m astonished at my hubris in making this extraordinary, er, farrago,” Boorman admits in his DVD commentary track.

Zardoz seems to draw liberally from Freud, Nietzsche, H.G. Wells, and L. Frank Baum, among many other sources. But however messy the film is, there’s not doubt that it’s about history. That tagline quoted above, which is a variation of Lincoln Steffens’s famous line about the Soviet Union (“I’ve seen the future and it works”), is at least earned. Whatever else you can say about the bizarre world of Zardoz it’s deeply dysfunctional. In 2993, a small society of immortal Eternals live within a series of Vortexes, superficially utopian communities surrounded by invisible barriers. Outside, primitive Brutals are controlled by Exterminators, who worship a giant flying head named Zardoz that spits out guns while declaring “The gun is good. The penis is evil.” Zardoz first orders the Exterminators to kill the other Brutals, before instead asking them to enslave the Brutals to produce grain which they load into the head. It turns out that Zardoz is a fake God (as we are actually told in advance, in an introduction that calls to mind Criswell the Psychic’s opening of Plan Nine from Outer Space). It turns out that the Eternals hate their lives, which no longer even include sex or sleep and seem to consist of conducting scientific experiments, making green bread, eating meals, meditating while waving their arms, and voting on things. Deeply bored and desiring the death that has been denied them, a conspiracy of Eternals train a mutant Exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery) to act as the agent of their liberation / death.

Though quite unlike most other films in many ways, Zardoz is typical of most Seventies science fiction cinema in its grim view of the future. Films such as A Clockwork Orange (1971). The Omega Man (1971), THX 1138 (1971), Westworld (1973), Phase IV (1974), A Boy and His Dog (1975), Death Race 2000 (1975), Rollerball (1975), Logan’s Run (1976), and the Planet of the Apes series (that began in the late Sixties but continued into the early Seventies) all present grim views of the future. Indeed “I’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work” could function as a tagline for just about any of these movies. Although the crisis befalling humanity in the future differs from film to film, they share a deeply grim theory of history, in which human civilization, and particularly science, inevitably lead to the destruction of civilization, human values, humanity, and perhaps even the Earth itself. Of course this grim view of the next phase of world history was hardly limited to works of fiction in the 1970s. The economist Robert Heilbroner’s “The Human Prospect” (originally a long essay in the January 24, 1974 issue of the New York Review of Books and later a bestselling book) predicted that Americans would have to give up their comfortable lifestyles and much of their personal freedoms in order for humanity to survive.

What underwrote these grim views of future history was a present seemingly dominated by disaster: oil crises, stagflation, the seeming failure of American democracy at home and American foreign policy overseas, a nation at war with itself.

I think this context, historical and science fictional, is an important frame through which we can understand the popular triumph of Star Wars in 1977, a film that had an utterly different theory of history from these Seventies dystopias. In many ways, technology was just as threatening and dehumanizing in Star Wars. The Empire’s new Death Star, the film’s greatest technological marvel, could destroy whole planets in a matter of minutes. Even Darth Vader himself was something of a technological marvel. But the scrappy Rebels, with the help of the seemingly pre-technological Force, could defeat the Empire. Technology might be dehumanizing, but it wasn’t destiny…a theme underscored some years later in the triumph of the primitive Ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi (1983).

Like Zardoz, Star Wars was something of a pastiche, including, among many other influences, a dash of The Searchers here, a little World War II dogfight there, and a somewhat uncomfortable pinch of Triumph of the Will for a little spice at the end. But Star Wars worked much better than Zardoz in every conceivable way. And at least some of its attraction was its extraordinarily positive implicit theory of history: an obscure young man from an obscure planet, with the help of a washed-up space pilot, could change the course of an Empire for the better. And Star Wars presented itself not as a fantasy of the future but as history itself. It was set, as we all know, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

[1] The blog Crooked Timber is in the middle of a Ken MacLeod Seminar, the announcement of which led me to pick up a copy of Fractions, a volume that contains the first half of the Fall Revolution series of novels, starting with The Star Fraction, MacLeod’s first novel. Over on CT, Henry Farrell beat me to this quotation by a few hours today. But it’s too good not to use again (and I began to put this post together before discovering that he’d used it, too).

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  1. Great post. Two quick thoughts:

    1) in the “Anthropology Through Science Fiction” class I took senior year, the professor labeld Star Wars as a “space fantasy” rather than sci-fi proper. According to this framework, sci-fi really had to be something like “Star Trek” or “I, Robot,” where some sort of futuristic technology or alien life form drives the story and spurs some social commentary. What do you think?

    2) Have you ever read the books of Harry Turtledove? He’s a trained historian (a medievalist, I think) who has written many works of alternate history, some of which include sci-fi elements.

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