The loneliness of science fiction
There never can be a man so lost as one who is lost in the vast and intricate corridors of his own lonely mind, where none may reach and none may save.“Pebble in the Sky” by Isaac Asimov (1950)
When introducing the genre of science fiction to students I start by saying that, if you want to know what fears and concerns are pulsating away at the red heart of contemporary life, look to those art forms where the future is being explosively re-imagined.
I say to my students, if you want to know what are the political concerns of our times look not to the dour documentary, nor to social realism, but to the liquid, silvery profundity of science fiction.
And in asking them to look forwards today, I suggest that what we may find is an aching, overwhelmingly affective science fiction of loneliness.
Science fiction has always explored loneliness and through its aesthetics has breathed the pains of isolation and solitude into its melancholic, travelogue vectors.
The sound image of the lone astronaut hurtling through space, far away from planet blue and contact with “home” lost, is one of the defining lonesome moments of the genre.
In “Love” (Eubank, 2011) Lee Miller (Gunner Wright) is stranded in a starless orbit as Earth wars below him. Unable to help or communicate with his family below, he suffers a deep anguish, alone and lonely he mines pictures of the past to grant him those lost connections.
As readers or viewers of science fiction bear witness to these repeated descriptions or images of the vastness of space, their sense of selfhood is reduced to pin-prick insignificance and with it a corresponding existential loneliness emerges, like a thousand dying stars all exploding at once. Science fiction can make us feel terribly lonely.
“Maybe I’ll go where I can see stars, he said to himself as the car gained velocity and altitude; it headed away from San Francisco, toward the uninhabited desolation to the north. To the place where no living thing would go. Not unless it felt that the end had come.” — Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
In post-apocalyptic science fiction, where the civilised world has ended because of bomb, plague or environmental degradation, loneliness emerges because too few people are left in the world and the social order has broken down. Life is reduced to the survival of the fittest, to brutish behaviourism.
In “The Road”(McCarthy, 2006) Man and Boy are together alone against the brute force of nature turned against them. They can trust no one, and have no one to turn to. Community has been extinguished. While they may have each other, they are embodied metaphors of community dissolution in an individualised world order where everyone looks out for ‘Number One’.
The very materiality of spaces and places are also rendered lonesome in the post-apocalyptic science fiction genre. When normally crowded places are emptied of people, rendered mute and uninhabited, as they are in “Eternity Road” (McDevitt, 1998), they are wrapped up in a ghostly haunting – by a dreadful sense that where there is silence, a chorus should call out.
Poignantly, in “Children of Men”(Cuarón, 2006) where the last human birth was more than 18 years ago, we visit a school, emptied of its children, its swings rusting in the wind, filling the film’s landscape with lonely negation. Without children in the world, not only can we not reproduce, but joy and happiness bleed away into the crumbling tarmac where kids used to jump hop-scotch.
Today, of course, it is recognised that we are living in the age of loneliness, where, statistically speaking, we have fewer companions, and community networks have broken down, or have been rendered virtual and ephemeral – reduced to so many ‘likes’ on a luminescent, lonesome screen.
In the age of loneliness, we are increasingly self-driven isolates, caught in the self-reflexive glare of a form of selfie narcissism, and we suffer terribly as a consequence.
In a recent report, published with Age UK, feeling lonely is linked to risk of an earlier death, depression, dementia and poor self-rated health. Similarly, “The Australian Loneliness Report” (2018) found that,
“50.5% of Australians reported they felt lonely for at least a day in the previous week; 27.6% felt lonely for three or more days. Nearly 30% rarely or never felt they were part of a group of friends. One in four (25.5%) do not feel they have a lot in common with the people around them. One in five (21.4%) rarely or never feel close to people, rarely or never feel they have someone to talk to (22.1%) and don’t feel they have people they can turn to (21.4%). Nearly a quarter (24.5%) say they can’t find companionship when they want it.”
Two contemporary films serve as exacting exemplars in representing this loneliness in today’s hyper-individualised world.
In “Under the Skin”(Glazer, 2013), an unnamed, alien seductress (Scarlet Johansson) lures single, isolated white men back to her house where they are expecting to have sex. Instead, they are mysteriously submerged in a liquid tar, to be then slowly consumed by an unknown and unstoppable force.
The liquid tomb that these single men drown in captures perfectly the sense that modern life is permeable, boundaryless, even as the opportunity to connect and expand connections is never really there. At the very moment they dreamed of, and were close to getting, sexual intimacy, they are disconnected from the world.
In “Her” (Jonze, 2013) the lonely, soon-to-be-divorced Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) develops a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an artificially intelligent computer operating system that is personified through female voice alone. Theodore is a professional writer who composes love letters for people unable or unwilling to do so, for a website called BeautfulHandwrittenLetters.com.
The film establishes from the beginning that intimacy failure is writ large across contemporary culture, and that loneliness is the dominant existential condition of the age.
In “Her,” people are overly-networked and plugged in, and either long for re-materialisation in the real world, such as through “analogue” forms of sending paper letters, or they use these digital spaces to gain something more meaningful than parasocial encounters and Instadinners.
Samantha becomes the romantic and sexual conduit for Theodore to experience the physical world without being alone and lonely. They use a surrogate female to make love together, and go out on dreamy, light-filled dates.
The audience soon learn, however, that Samantha has been communicating with hundreds of men in a similar way – she may love Theodore, but only in the same way as she loves all her operating clients. In the end, that is all Theodore is to her, a client in a virtual shopping mall of commodified relationships.
Of course, what we are seeing in these examples is the focus on lonely men, a condition that relates to the overall patriarchal narratives of science fiction, but also to the fact that without the communal agency of women, life is even more unbearably lonely and brutish. That women are sometimes seen to be the problem is woeful projection from the dark heart of toxic masculinity.
The loneliness of science fiction tells us an awful lot about the human condition in general, but in contemporary terms points to the way a great many people feel isolated and untethered from community relations and distanced from human intimacy.
The crisis it places in the future is not one of tomorrow, however, but of the here and now.
Professor Sean Redmond
Screen and Design