Wouldn't It Be Cool If...?
When I was a kid, maybe nine or ten, I watched a nature documentary following a team of scientists in Antarctica. I don’t remember much about it other than some shots of ice and penguins, and also that I cried.
Let me stop right there to clarify your portrait of young-me. Yes, I was a ten-year-old kid who watched documentaries ON PURPOSE. And YES I think it was during a bright summer day when I could have been outside riding my bike or whatever it is kids without a lot of Star Trek action figures do. But! The crying part was out of character. I don’t cry often, and I don’t have any other memories of crying as a kid. It’s just that something really got to me about this show.
Like most kids, I had a sense of wonder about this huge, unknowable world we live in. In school, I learned about Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Lewis and Clark… brave men who tore through the dark corners of the earth in search of fame and adventure! (Also slaves and gold, etc...) The frontier, you know? There’s a romantic idea that sea monsters or cyclopses could show up and murder you at any moment, but you’re out there anyway seeing things no one has ever seen before. Movies like Indiana Jones, and stories like The Odyssey fed into this romantic notion as well.
I knew that people had been exploring the Earth forever, but for some reason I had assumed that in 1992 there were still places yet unknown; places I might be able to explore some day. Now, the TV was showing me, there were even people in Antarctica! Much like journalism, my attention span, and the radio star, TV had ruined my magical worldview.
I realized now that there were no new places to see. Monsters truly were limited to The Odyssey. There were no lost civilizations of gold. It devastated me. I didn’t care when I learned Santa *SPOILER ALERT* wasn’t real. As long as I was still getting presents, I was good. No, this was my true moment of lost innocence. The world wasn’t a big magical place. It couldn’t be when literal nerds were hanging out in the most remote place on Earth poking penguins with rulers. (That’s what researchers do, right?)
I remember going to my mom, tears in my eyes, and attempting to explain to her the depths of my disillusionment. “Mom! (sniffle) There’s people in Antarctica!”
And my mom, so supportive and comforting, just hugging me despite my gibberish. “I know, sweetie, I know…”
I remembered this moment recently after a screening of Guardians of the Galaxy 2. If you’re a science fiction fan, you probably understand why. See, that feeling I had as a ten-year-old is exactly why I love sci-fi so much, and more broadly, why I’m obsessed with the cosmos.
As Douglas Adams wrote in (my favorite book ever) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big.”
(Actually, the full quote is too great to shorten: “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”) So, yeah, space is enormous. And that’s exciting because you could LITERALLY never explore all of it. There’s so much weird crap out there that we couldn’t possibly ever even conceive of, right? That’s fun! Suddenly, there’s that childlike wonder again. What’s out there? Who’s out there? Did you know that in 2004 we discovered a planet called 55 Cancri e, and it’s made of at least 33% diamond? I mean, diamonds aren’t really my thing, but hey! That’s rad, right? What does that planet LOOK like? I love imagining that stuff.
Science fiction is like our cultural imagination. Some amazing nerd with a word processor imagines bonkers stuff, tells us all about it, and then we get to imagine it too. A generation of people grew up watching Star Trek, became engineers, and invented cell phones, automatic doors, iPads, and the internet. Those things aren’t developed in a vacuum. Someone had to imagine they could exist first, then inspire us to make them happen for real.
Who’s inspiring the kids of today? Unfortunately, most modern science fiction is incredibly mundane and, frankly, bleak. Everything is dystopian nightmare scenarios, post-apocalypses, zombies, and war. I mean, I get it. With climate change, the resurgence of fascism, and honest-to-God Donald Trump in the White House, humanity seems destined to failure.
But that’s exactly WHY we need to imagine more. Right now, it seems that our cultural imagination can’t see past our current crises. But that’s self-defeating. If we all imagine the world is going to hell anyway, then what’s inspiring us to make it better?
That got a little off-topic there, but the point I’m trying to make is that we need to dream a little bigger! Realistic, down-to-earth fiction is obviously important, too. But science fiction and fantasy definitely have a place and serve a purpose.
So! I’m happy to see that there seems to be an upswing in bonkers, imaginative sci-fi again.
*Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy 2*
At one point, our titular Guardians meet Ego, the living planet. This is a space-born consciousness who learned to control matter, and over aeons built a planet body for himself.
They meet Manta, an antenna-sporting woman with the ability to read emotions and influence the emotions of others.
They meet a race of gold-colored beings who have genetically engineered themselves to such perfection, that the loss of even one life would lead to societal disorder. Therefore, their combat vehicles are all remotely piloted in a giant arcade-like structure.
This is awesome stuff! Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar was a movie that attempted to show the mind-bending reality of space as we know it, and it was fascinating and exciting! Guardians, on the other hand, showed what most probably isn’t out there… but heck, it COULD be, right?? And that’s what’s been missing from sci-fi recently. “Probably not… but wouldn’t it be cool IF???”
I miss “wouldn’t it be cool if.” I think a lot of other people miss it too. There’s been two amazing Guardians of the Galaxy films now. Perhaps boldened by their massive success, studios decided to take a chance on Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which, I mean… just look at this trailer:
(By the way, was that an epic orchestral cover of Gangster’s Paradise?)
A few years ago there was Jupiter Ascending which wasn’t a particularly great movie, but it had a lot of cool, bonkers ideas in it too!
I hope this trend continues a while. We need a little optimism about our future. Star Trek, which hasn’t had a show on the air for more than a decade, is coming back this fall. Let’s hope it’s not some “gritty” reimagining. The movies have been fun, but they’ve also been a little pessimistic at times. Let’s let our cultural imagination soar a little bit. Let’s dare to dream that humanity’s best days are still ahead. Let’s explore a little bit.
Do it for ten-year-old Charlie.