Built on Facts

The Time Traveller’s Surrogate

This weekend I was at the movies with my lovely significant other watching The Proposal (verdict: about what you’d expect). Unusually for a by-the-numbers romcom, the pre-film previews showed no fewer than two promising science fiction films.

Science fiction is difficult to cleanly describe – it’s almost more of a flavor than a formula. The best I can do at the moment is to say that science fiction speculates on the consequences of some fundamental but scientifically plausible difference(s) between now and some other time. That time doesn’t necessarily have to be the future, by the way. Being set in the future does not science fiction make – The Prestige is much more pure SF than Star Trek. Star Wars isn’t really part of the genre at all.

The first advertised was The Time Traveller’s Wife. The science content is probably minimal; it’s not hard science fiction. This isn’t a bad thing. The Prestige wasn’t hard SF either but it’s still probably the best SF film I’ve seen in a very long time. The Time Traveller’s Wife seems to involve a man who time travels at random, leaving his romantic life tragically but movingly fragmented. The similarities to the not-SF film The Notebook are probably not coincidental, and if this one ends up doing as well among the same demographic I’m going to love the incongruity with the “traditional” science fiction audience stereotype.

The other is a Bruce Willis vehicle called Surrogates. It’s a more traditional piece of SF fare, sort of a blending of The Matrix and Minority Report. Robotic technology has advanced to the point where robots are indistinguishable from humans, and actual humans remotely control them via virtual reality from the safety of Matrix-style pods. Murders start happening, and Bruce Willis must solve them without getting his real body killed.

(Incidentally, this is why I don’t accept the “They’ve Matrixed themselves” as an explanation for the Fermi Paradox. Plugging yourself into a more agreeable virtual world does not at all exclude continuing to explore and affect the rest of the universe via surrogates or fully autonomous probes.)

I have to say I’m fairly pleased with this. Two genuine and possibly high-quality science fiction films being advertised in front of a Bullock/Reynolds chick flick is a good sign for the mainstream acceptance of SF into the public consciousness. Hey, if it can happen for superhero flicks and comic book adaptations anything can happen.


  1. #1 James Brennan
    July 27, 2009

    I just finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s hard to make time-travel stories work because of the inevitable contradictions, but the author did an amazing job of tying up all the loose ends. I recommend it, and I’ll probably go see the film.

  2. #2 NoAstronomer
    July 27, 2009

    The movie ‘Moon’ is getting some airtime over at skepchick (http://www.skepchick.org/blog)

  3. #3 Excited State
    July 27, 2009

    Of course, Star Wars is not set in the future, but rather “A long time ago…”

    I don’t really know much about SF, so why do you not consider Star Wars to be part of the genre?

  4. #4 Paul
    July 27, 2009

    I always came at the “They’ve Matrixed themselves”, or perhaps more the more contemporary “They’ve WoWed themselves”, solution to the Fermi Paradox from the more sociological aspect. If an entire society has retreated into the virtual, then that might speak to some major changes in how that society even thinks about the real, physical world & its role in it.

    If that’s true, then as an entire society the pursuit of exploration might become essentially meaningless to the overwhelming majority. I know it’s not a particularly pleasing idea, in fact it’s pretty horrifying, but arguments to the fundamental spirits of scientific endeavour notwithstanding, it might be plausible. An uploaded, transhuman existence doesn’t preclude continued interaction with the real world, you’re right, but it would if you want it to.

  5. #5 Adrian Morgan
    July 27, 2009

    BTW, The Prestige is on top of the list of movies I haven’t seen but want to…

  6. #6 Noadi
    July 28, 2009

    Star Wars is much more fantasy set in space, I love the original 3 movies but they aren’t really SF. The main driving force of the movies isn’t in any way related to technology, science, or the future. It’s got the Force which is a form of magic, a plot very much inspired by mythological themes, and despite having the technology to colonize space has very anachronistic societies.

    There are ways to work anachronisms into SF that work, Firefly is a perfect example setting it up as frontier planets with the more advanced inner worlds as the source of space technology. However nothing really justifies having magic and calling it SF unless you have a very good explanation for it which Star Wars doesn’t.

    Star Trek at it’s best is great pure SF but it gets screwed up on a regular basis.

  7. #7 Gerry Rising
    July 28, 2009

    Re the current Sci-Fi movie, MOON: A bit slow but I enjoyed it.

  8. #8 Ty Marx
    July 28, 2009

    Moon is not a bad bit if SF, but it certainly is no 2001.
    The lunar environent is properly hostile, and the He3 mining was something that I had never heard of before that and was glad they didn’t make it up. Moon is really more about the ethics of cloning, how a person deals with being out of info and out of power to effect it, and a coporate “With Great Power…” moral.
    Better than most stuff on the bigscreen right now, but I bet the original raft of that story was much better.

    Also I prefer Whedons version of the genre: Fictionalized Scientifics!

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