Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Primitivism in Contemporary Science Ficiton

I've been noticing a growing tendency in popular science fiction to express an ideology of romantic primitivism. As Wikipedia summarizes, the concept holds that "life was better or more moral during the early stages of mankind or among primitive peoples (or children) and has deteriorated with the growth of civilization." Unless you're one of the two people on the planet who didn't see Avatar you should easily be able to see the relevance of primitivism in popular culture. Furthermore a few other major sci-fi properties express similar philosophical leanings: the TV show Battlestar Galactica concluded last year with (spoiler warning) a futuristic human society abandoning all of their technology and knowledge to colonize a primitive Earth; now Steven Spielberg's upcoming show, Terra Nova, will apparently show a family from the year 2149 who go back to the time of the dinosaurs to alter history and save humanity from its "devotion to science."

Ok, so what the fuck?

Where is this sudden regressive impulse coming from? The philosophy certainly isn't new but its prevalence in science fiction lately is noteworthy and unnerving. Science fiction has always existed as a vehicle through which to consider and critique human society by imagining a different one. The genre allows us to question aspects of human life such as political structures or belief systems, and in that way to really question ourselves. Now the most popular sci-fi stories are placing the blame for humanity's woes squarely on the shoulders of technology and the individuals who propagate it... Huh?

This type of reductive thinking produces no room for analysis or discussion but instead encourages a moralistic mob mentality and a "get rid of the bad guys / things" type response, as seen at the end of Avatar. BSG started out as a liberal and critically minded examination of contemporary politics through the lens of a space opera, promoting new ways of thinking about concepts like race, religion, and war. When the show ended it suddenly devolved into an imperialistic treatise about faith, cyclical patterns, and the evils of technology. This ran completely counter to many of show's focal points, including the idea that the "evil" Cylons were for all intents and purposes people, a reflection of their human creators. The show's conclusion didn't make sense thematically, and fans of the show reacted accordingly.

Tellingly the endings of BSG and Avatar were essentially the same: 
the main characters integrated with alien noble savages by fucking them

What is the deal with all this romantic primitivism? The root of all human problems is always the humans themselves, and sci-fi has traditionally been a medium for exploring this issue in all its complexities. Now some of the most prominent examples of the genre are spouting off some ridiculous ideology about how technology is to blame and we should all abandon it to be more in touch with nature? I say again, what the fuck? I'm all for environmentalism but don't try to sell me some two-bit theory that shirks our responsibility and ignores the vast amounts of good that has come as a result of technological advancement. The solution's not as simple as that, and frankly it's not as stupid either. We need better answers and we deserve better stories.

1 comment:

  1. I think there's sort of a two part explanation for the turn towards romantic primitivism (and by explanation I mean half-baked theory that popped into my head).

    I think the identification of environmentalism as a driving force behind the turn is probably accurate. The commodification of "green" ideas has been going on for a while now, and there's no reason it wouldn't show up in SFF as much as anywhere else. It actually probably appeared earlier than just recently -- Ursula LeGuin's "The Word for World is Forest" and "The Dispossessed", or Oryx and Crake, come to mind, and even Wall-E has an ecological bent -- but I think lately it's come back without a critical edge. Instead of looking at the interrelation of capitalism and ecological destruction, new SFF takes on the same attitude towards the environment as popular environmentalism -- the natural world is something to be admired because its a beautiful, fun adventure-providing opportunity for bored Westerners, not because it exists as an entity in it's own right.

    The other part of the turn seems to me to be tied particularly to ideas about freedom and frontiers. Where technology used to seem like a path towards new frontiers (both the very big and the very small) when the old ones had being colonized and closed up, the absorption of technology into our daily lives has sort of cut into people's imaginations about technological utopias. It's difficult to think of technology as a medium for the expression of freedom when you're checking your Blackberry every 15 minutes and companies are checking out your personal life on Facebook, and meanwhile you're shelling out for a new computer every few years for upgrades to things that you don't really understand the usefulness of. The ideal of a virtual world of liberty and adventure gives way to the purported addictiveness of WOW and the banality of Second Life. Technology stops appearing as something entrepreneurial and freedom-granting, and instead appears as just one more thing to buy, or as one more way for people to keep track of you and infringe on your personal life.

    I think the combination of these two strands leads to the kind of romantic primitivism you're describing, at least in some ways. Upper middle class folks in the West feel oppressed by their technologies, and bored with their material existence. What could be a better fix than a world where frontiers are still vast and tangible, and where the world is your playground to interact with as you will?