MG Mason

Social Commentary in science fiction: How it changed after 9/11


I’m not here to offer platitudes, express outrage or appeal to jingoism and xenophobia. I think there has been enough of that in the last ten years and there is nothing I can say about the event that hasn’t already been said. What I do want to do is discuss how the world’s worst terrorist attack changed science fiction and the portrayal of government, religion and society.

Battlestar Galactica – Forged in the Fires of 9/11

The most brutal assessment of the insidious and self-serving nature of religion, and how it is used to justify atrocities (often in the name of those great virtues that apparently comes exclusively from religion “peace”, “love” and “tolerance”), is from Battlestar Galactica. The humans with their ancient pantheon and the cylons with their all-powerful monotheism were both convinced with their own righteousness and belief in their own revealed truths that they became consumed with the evil of the other side.

Fanaticism at first seemed the exclusive preserve of the Cylons, their readiness to quote scripture and use suicide bombs to further their cause; yet later on the more subtle fanaticism of the humans became clear as they spurn the possibility of peace with the Cylons whom they could never see as equal. Boomer/Athena’s cross-breed baby is an “abomination” and the idea of sentient machines challenges everything they believe about their spiritual uniqueness. Even when proven that these Cylons are more than machines, the evidence is fiercely resisted, denied and condemned.

I discussed before Laura Roslin’s subtle manipulation of religious sentiment to foster an image of being a great spiritual leader. She is cynical and her followers clearly blind (willingly so at times perhaps?) to her plot. She doesn’t believe the prophecies herself but she is all too willing to cause them to happen to achieve the goals she desires.

Very late on, Gaius Baltar becomes a figure of veneration washed up in a cult of personality. He is an egomaniac and despite knowing that he is not what they say he is, he goes with it any way. This state of affairs came about as a result of Caprica Six’ manipulation of Baltar, eventually working him up to think he has a destiny.

Leaving religion to one side for the moment, the tragedy is that both sides are guilty of atrocities against the other side, they hate each other for those atrocities and ignore their own wrongdoing or attempt to justify it. The cycle of violence continues ever onward. Its almost a Frankenstein-Creature relationship.

Elsewhere on the Web

This article from three years ago suggested that film adaptations of The Mist and Minority Report were indicative of a post 9/11 world. I find this bizarre. Stephen King wrote it in 1980 and the 2007 film is true to the novella in a lot of ways. Most importantly the theme of religious mania and the people who follow them out of desperation were both already present. Perhaps as with BSG, 9/11 allowed such a harsh, brutal criticism of religious fervour to be expressed more openly than we might have permitted before?

As for Minority Report, I do not get this at all. The criminalisation of thoughts of committing a crime has been an issue in written fiction for a long time. George Orwell penned the term thought crime in 1984 and the suppression of all kinds of freedoms was prevalent through the 20th century.

Other suggestions include 2001’s Dune mini series. Again I find this bizarre. The book was written in the 1960s and as far as I am concerned a faithful adaptation was needed since Lynch butchered the source material in the 80s. The mini-series is that faithful adaptation and its sequel completed the first three books well.

This interesting blog post goes into some depth about Harry Potter and I think the author is right. There is a clear change of tone between Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. As Voldemort goes from the invisible ghoul to clear and present danger, the Ministry of Magic becomes insular, less of a clueless dinosaur, more aggressive, paranoid and proactive and less concerned with the wider world and their place in it – a bit like UKIP.

V For Vendetta

I also have to ask myself whether a film adaptation of V for Vendetta could have been made before 9/11 without a context for the re-imagining. The original graphic novel was written in the 1980s and was a critique of Thatcherism. People could relate to it then but 30 years later the original message is redundant. 9/11 became the catalyst to a new vision of future fascism in Britain. The influence is obvious: Roger Allam’s character Prothero, sounding very much like a British Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh on speed blames “godlessness” for America’s failings, “homosexuals”, “immigrants” and “Muslims” for Britain’s and cites their deportation or execution as our saving grace. The fanatical religious expression of Norsefire (the ruling party) is reminiscent of the evangelical movement’s support for GWB in the years immediately following 9/11. Watch the documentary Jesus Camp to see the sort of thing I mean.

The chief protagonist addresses the nation’s paranoia “where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease…” as both the US and UK has seen the rise of extremism in the last ten years (albeit in different ways), this is food for thought.

I also have to wonder whether Cloverfield would have been filmed in the way that it was had it not been for 9/11. We all know that it was not the first film about a giant creature attacking a city (and New York specifically) but it was the first time that it dealt solely with ordinary people and how they try to survive such a horrific event. We don’t see the President, the Mayor, military or civic leaders except through brief meetings with our protagonists. Some sites have pointed to New York being the centre of the film is indicative of 9/11 but I personally feel that the setting of New York is superficial.

I want to end this post by posting a video. It is G’Kar’s epiphany from the Babylon 5 episode Dust to Dust.