English Extension 1 - Science Fiction Essay

Science fiction genre conventions reflect a postmodern context as they simultaneously project and perpetuate society’s universal concerns and fears. The genre’s imitation of context can be seen in: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992), hereafter Blade Runner; William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984); E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909); and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995). In its style and subject, sf alone seems capable of mimicking a postmodern world in which simulation and reality, the natural and the artificial and what it means to be human are re-examined in light a constantly changing world.

Blade Runner’s representation of society’s postmodernity is enhanced by sf conventions as contextual values and fears are projected in a futuristic world. The film reflects on the devaluation of the human condition in a postmodern world as it echoes and perhaps perpetuates society’s ‘historical schizophrenia’ through aesthetics. The pastiche of film noir visuals and Mayan and Egyptian architecture renders Los Angeles 2019 with “no geographical centre and no ‘original’ past to refer to” (Redmond, S.). The city’s configuration and schizophrenic state reflects the film’s overall postmodern identity crisis, a projection of society’s existential condition. The opening panoramic long shot of Los Angeles is a visual spectacle as it dominates the screen. Although the film’s use of spectacle may be attributed to its sf style, it is perhaps a reflection of society’s postmodernity. As the accumulation of spectacles in society results in a “detach[ment] from every aspect of life”, rendering “reality … an object of mere contemplation” (Debord, G.), they contribute to conditions of postmodernity. Nick Lacey criticises Blade Runner’s attention to aesthetics as he asserts that the film ‘fails’ to “fully represent the postmodern view of the human condition”. In saying this, however, Lacey fails to consider that perhaps the film’s aesthetic treatment of postmodernism is, in of itself, a manifestation of the effects of postmodernism; that is, if postmodernism advocated a transcendence of the surface and depth dichotomy.

Neuromancer’s distinct use of cyberpunk conventions reinforces the novel ability to project and perpetuate society’s concerns in a postmodern world. The cyberpunk genre is particularly postmodern as it deconstructs “the technological ramifications of experience within late-capitalist, post-industrial, media-saturated … society” (Hollinger, V.). As Gibson re-contextualises past vocabularies and ideas, he portrays language as more importantly aesthetic, rhetorical and metaphorical in a postmodern context. The novel’s first sentence: “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel”, invokes a rhetoric of technology to express the natural world in a metaphor which illustrates technology’s construction of reality. The proliferation of digital-based based metaphors throughout the novel reflects the mass media hype and popularisation of the Internet during the 1980s and society’s subsequent concern with the effects of technology upon human existence. Case sees “all around [him] the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market”. Here, the setting embodies postmodern aesthetics as the human world replicates its own mechanical systems. Thus, the blurring of man and machine “cyberpunk's infatuation with boundary crossing” which is seen by some as the “hallmark of the postmodern condition” (Sponsler, C.). As Neuromancer explores the cyberpunk style of transgressing traditional boundaries, the novel embodies and perpetuates society’s postmodernity.

Whilst The Machine Stops was written before the development of postmodernism, Forster’s depiction of a futuristic world paradoxically mirrors the concerns of contemporary, postmodern society. As the short story predicts 21st century technologies and explores their consequences on the human desire for knowledge and experience, it expresses the sustained fear that “the progressive mechanization of the human environment” will eventually “reduce man to the measure of his artificial environment” (Caporaletti, S.). In their pursuit of scientific discoveries, “humanity’s progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine”, thus provoking the trespassing of the mechanical into the human, a concern that is sustained in society today and in cyberpunk. Fulfilled by simulacra produced by the Machine, the humans prefer the simulation of experience to experience itself. All sensations and ideas found in “music”, “literature” and “poetry” that construct the present are nothing but repetition and memory. The humans’ inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy parallels a postmodern world where technology and media represent a “world that is more real than reality” (Baudrillard, J.). Silvana Caporaletti highlights the similarities between the world of the Machine and today’s era as “the existential condition” and “mechanical futurism of Forster’s world appears threateningly close”. The Machine Stops simultaneously predicts and embodies how the development of human history and science blurs the distinction between imagination and reality in a postmodern world.

Whilst Ghost in the Shell makes use of sf genre conventions, its postmodern delivery of such conventions projects the concerns of society about technology in the future. Unlike the previous texts, the anime film elevates technology’s positive potential, not only in terms of the physical and mental augmentation offered by cyborgs but also in terms of the possibility of spiritual development offered by artificial intelligence. Although the film’s focus appears to contradict postmodernism, which often criticises the nature of spirituality, its awareness of the end of human progress that develops on a level of temporal contiguity, is postmodern in itself. As the film demonstrates metaphysical transcendence through technology, it proposes that the next form of evolution will be technological, a concept characteristically cyberpunk. As a cyborg, Kusanagi is arguably a manifestation of the postmodern condition as her very characterisation as the protagonist is a “decentring of the human subject” (Sponsler, C.). At the end of the film, she has formed with a greater artificial intelligence and she reflects on herself in the final line: “the net is wide and infinite”. Thus, the final scene ends on a transcendent note as she looks up at the sky, indicating the fulfilment of her search for identity. In this way, Donna Haraway’s comment that in the late twentieth century “the cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics” resonates with the audience as Kusanagi’s sense of spiritual fulfilment may be incomparable to the fears that pervade the postmodern condition.

The difference between society’s values and those in sf texts are almost indistinguishable as the genre has become “a privileged cultural site for enactments of the postmodern condition” (Kuhn, A.). This can be seen in Blade Runner, Neuromancer, The Machine Stops and Ghost in the Shell as the values and fears expressed in these texts resonate with the contemporary conditions of postmodernity.