While Star Trek and Star Wars still reign supreme when it comes to science fiction, I have noticed that in the past couple of years, there has been a different sort of trend happening in sci-fi. Usually what we get in sci-fi media is the story of plucky humans traveling the universe and beating all the odds. Though humans are usually not ignorant when it comes to science and space travel, there are usually alien species that are much older and significantly more advanced. Many older sci-fi stories are hopeful humanistic stories about how we are able to overcome some sort of problem despite our lesser tech, or by showing how human resourcefulness and good old-fashioned spunk make us major players in the universe despite not being as advanced as some of the older races.
We have always been fascinated with the idea that we are not alone in the universe; that there is some alien presence out there older than us, maybe watching us. We aren’t certain, but we’re confident that one day we will run into them. But as our technology advances more and more, people look up in the sky and wonder why we haven’t encountered an alien presence or why we haven’t at least seen evidence of them through our most advanced telescopes. While this hasn’t stopped people from believing in aliens, this had led to two interesting theories: that either we are alone in the universe, or maybe we’re the more advanced race. For some reason, when we are left with these theories, science fiction starts to become a little less hopeful and a little more bleak in its outlook toward humanity.
It stands to reason that if there aren’t aliens, then we are probably alone in the universe. But aliens have always been the bread and butter of sci-fi, right? How do you write some epic space opera without aliens? Well, the same as you do every other story: by focusing on human drama.
In Firefly, we learn about “Earth that Was”, and how the resources of the planet we know today were eventually used up, forcing the citizens of Earth to colonize new planets. The people used terraforming technology to make the planets as close to Earth as possible. Firefly takes place after a war between the central planets and the outer planets. The central planets saw themselves as the upper class and as the more educated humans, and insisted that unifying the planets would help them share their wealth and knowledge. The outer planets saw the central planets as meddlesome and more interested in simple subjugation than actually helping people. Despite valiant efforts, the Browncoats from the outer planets lost the war. In this post-war world of Firefly, the culture, attitude, and beliefs of the central planets are extolled and uplifted, while the outer planets are viewed as barbaric and uneducated. The Alliance, the central planets’ government, is seen meddling in the affairs of the people, and often turns a blind eye to any of the problems happening on the outer planets. In general, they either ignore problems, or they create them. We never meet aliens on any of the terraformed planets, nor do any aliens ever make themselves known in the show. The main conflict here is focused on humans versus other humans. The most dangerous force in the world continues to be human beings and not some greater outer threat.
We see something similar in the movie Avatar, in which we are introduced to the planet Pandora and the people who live there, known as the Na’vi. Unlike Firefly, Avatar does feature aliens prominently, but not as an older, more technologically advanced race. The Na’vi are at least equally as advanced as the humans; they have a telepathic connection to a giant sentient tree that can communicate with the whole planet. But because it’s something different, the humans ignore it as primitive. The humans come to Pandora because they have depleted all of Earth’s natural resources and plan to colonize and mine Pandora’s resources. Obviously the main conflict comes, once again, from humans attempting to colonize a place that is not theirs. The humans, with the exception of some of the human scientists, are utterly disinterested in the Na’vi, and want them out of the way so that they can take what they want, which leads to a war between the two parties. Like in Firefly, we again see that the most dangerous force in the universe, even in one with aliens, is human beings.
Both narratives bring up important themes—such as the role of the government in society, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and environmental issues—just to name a few. These are important issues that affect our world today and it’s very clear that both Firefly and Avatar are trying to make a statement about those issues. These narratives are trying to encourage today’s society to be better now so that we don’t continue to make the same mistakes in the future. Star Trek and other shows like it had the same sort of themes, but the distinct difference between science fiction now and older science fiction is that it’s humans who are causing the problems instead of solving them. In the older sc-ifi shows, when analogies involving various issues in society are presented, the ones committing atrocities are aliens that the humans must somehow overcome, and even if they are dealing with other villainous humans, the humans are also the ones fixing the problem. In the original series of Star Trek, we often see racism from the Vulcans who treat Spock poorly because he is half Vulcan and half human. The human crew of the Enterprise, however, always supports Spock and tries to help him accept both his human side and Vulcan side equally. And of course, eventually Spock becomes the Ambassador to Earth for the Vulcans, and is a respected member of both Vulcan and human society.
I’m not saying that there weren’t conflicts between humans in these shows too. Obviously shows like Star Wars dealt with a war primarily between the Empire and the humans (and some aliens) who made up the Rebel Alliance. But even here we see something completely different from shows like Firefly. The main conflict of Star Wars is centered around Luke and his friends trying to save the galaxy. Firefly, on the other hand, simply showed a group of people trying to live their lives without getting involved with, or being bothered by, the government. You hear that Simon got help from rebel factions, but we never meet them, and the Firefly crew never joins them (though who knows what Joss would have done in the future). Even in the movie Serenity when they decide to show the video of Miranda and how the Reavers were made, they don’t actually fix anything. They expose the truth and that’s it. Afterward they just go back to their lives. Luke and the gang from Star Wars are actively trying to take down the government but also build a new world where people can live without oppression. Both Star Trek and Star Wars created a universe that was hopeful that humanity would become better and not make the same mistakes they did before.
I find this shift in science fiction interesting. We see this reflected in other newer sci-fi stories, too: Cowboy Bebop shows an Earth that is now largely a junk heap and much of society is still just as corrupt as it ever was, District 9 has humans locking sick aliens in internment camps, and even shows like Doctor Who show humanity enslaving races like the Ood. I wonder if, as our technology advances and we continue to find that we are alone in the universe, we start losing hope. I think very hopeful sci-fi shows made us believe that in the future things would be better. Maybe people are dismayed that we have become more advanced technologically, but socially we still have a long way to go. Perhaps this trend in sci-fi is supposed to shake us up and alert us to the fact that things need to change or we’ll continue to make the same mistakes in the future.