The stars are talking back to me, I know it.
Throughout Terrestrial Liddy looks to the stars to find herself, to help make sense of a world she’s too young to process. For her, aliens present a chance to escape a life that she didn’t ask for and knows that no one should want. She’s bored, and restless and scared. She’s suffocating. The stars present infinite possibilities.
In the article A Journey to the Far Side of Ourselves: Science Fiction as Metaphor, critic Richard Kuipers spoke of science fictions ability as a genre to express complex ideas about the human condition.
“Yes, science fiction is about spaceships, aliens, robots and time travel, but it’s really about us – who we are, how we live and are sometimes told to live, our fears and anxieties as individuals and communities, and what we imagine, with equal parts optimism and pessimism, our future might be”
Kuipers analysis, and Terrestrial, fit into Carl Jung’s notion that the myth of the UFO, the alien, the extra-terrestrial being in the flying saucer was a result of the human unconscious making use of fantasy elements “in order to portray its contents”.
We sat down with Adelaide University Film and Literature Academic, Dr Joy McEntee, to talk about science fiction, aliens and why, for so long, we have thought looked up to the stars and hoped they could help make sense of our lives below.
How does science fiction function as a means to help us understand ourselves?
Michael Jamieson has talked about Utopia in science fiction … and he basically says that utopia in science fiction is only ever a projection of what we imagine could be possible in our current situation. So we’re always moving outside of our current situation and moving towards the future, but it’s only ever a future related to our current situation. So the anxieties that are out there are very much already projections of what we already fear in our present.
How has the genre worked throughout its history to help us articulate our fears and better understand ourselves?
Down the decades, Science Fiction has always been responsive to what was the current cultural anxiety. And you can really see that stamped on them. It’s a paranoid genre and is often a genre that, to quote The X-Files, wants to believe in something external. It’s not happy with the world being realistic. It wants a fifth dimension.
There are some really wild and interesting films coming out of Russia and Germany in the 1920’s. I mean Germany came out with a film called Metropolis which imagines this dystopian future where workers are all enslaved. Russia made this wild film called Aelita, which you have to see to believe. Both of these works emerged in the era of modernism, where there was all of this anxiety surrounding technological advancement and people moving into cities; what that meant, and how that would change us. And that parallels with our own era where we worry about the robots coming to take us over, or AI coming to take us over.
Following from the 20’s, there was a huge moment in the 1950’s America when there was general paranoia about the communists taking over … and a lot of those fears were projected onto aliens, extra-terrestrials and UFO’s coming and taking people. One of my favourite examples is Invasion of the Body Snatchers which imagines a town full of normal Americans being taken over and impersonated by pod-people who turn them into a highly conformist cell of people who lack individuality or autonomy or any of the things that were meant to have made America great.
And on through the decades, science fiction has been mobilised to express particular anxieties of the time in which it is produced. So The Thing in the 1980’s ends up with a black man and a white man facing down, one of them could be ‘The Thing’ and nobody knows which one it is and so this question of monstrous, or alien, other becomes one of race. In the 2000’s, where you’ve got things like Terminator 2 with the car industry collapsing, and you have this anxiety about mass mechanisation taking over again. And, of course, we had The Matrix we’ve had the discussion about whether AI is coming to colonise our consciousness: are we going to upload ourselves to the machines and leave our bodies behind?
Australian cinema, for the most part, is bereft of science fiction when you compare it with the likes of America. Why do you think that is?
I think one of the big differences between America and Australia is Australia has until now had a profoundly sceptical culture. That notion of there being something beyond isn’t necessarily one of our features whereas America, since the time of white settlement, has been a profoundly superstitious culture and you see this in the Salem Witch Trials, in the way religion continuously crops up in American culture.
Australia, apart from Woomera, hasn’t really had a space race. We haven’t had that fantasy of going out into the beyond and encountering the unknown and mistakenly bringing it back with us.
What is it about aliens? Why do we always come back to the figure of the alien or the robot that excites people, or helps them escape … why do we reach for that as a culture?
We’re looking for a new frontier. This is what has been a continuing theme in American Science Fiction in particular … America was founded, or settled, as a frontier colony. It’s now run out of frontier and it’s continuously sought that frontier out ever since.