Mass Effect And The Rebirth of Optimistic Science Fiction Part 1

Mass Effect: Andromeda is released tomorrow. Unfortunately, due to the lack of an Xbox One, I won’t be able to play it. However, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I bought ‘Mass Effect,’ the game that started the science fiction franchise. And what a game I picked up. I’ve recently played the original game (for at least the fourth time), and each time reinforces the brilliance of it. Not only is a great game in and of itself, but it’s also a different kind of science fiction that we’re used to today. It’s not post-apocalyptic or a dystopia, but a science fiction universe thriving with enthusiasm and glory. It’s a refreshing change from the grey, dull and depressing science fiction that we see all too often in video games and films of the modern age.

The Story

The story is basic Bioware stuff i.e. create your own main character, then build a diverse team (all species of aliens etc) to confront an ancient evil that has arisen to threaten the galaxy. Through large ‘dialogue trees’, you can decide whether your character is a goodie two shoes or the Devil in disguise. It’s the epitome of open-ended game play, where almost everything is up to you. You proceed across the universe, exploring planets, building up your character in preparation for the final battle to save everything. Of course, the real nature of the threat is revealed gradually.

Quite a downer, the possible end of the galaxy, but the essential point of the game is a great enthusiasm for the future, one that is missing from the great majority of science fiction is both film and video games. Take any of the best-selling video games of the past two decades that are sci-fi themed: Gears of War, Fallout 3, Killzone 2, Half Life 2…they all paint a pretty grim picture for the future. Fallout 3 depicts a post-nuclear environment where almost everyone you meet is insane, immoral, or a mutant. Gears of War 2 and Half Life 2 draw the future as one ruined by alien invasion. Mass Effect is one of the only video games in recent memory that shows the future as a thriving, galaxy-spanning adventure for humanity. Using ‘mass relays’, humanity can now travel the vast distances in an instant. It seems a more likely alternative than the old sci-fi notion of lightspeed, but that’s beside the point. It is a throwback not only to the ‘space opera’ genre of the 1960s (i.e. Star Trek), but the electronic synth sounds that follow the player throughout the game strongly suggest a nod to the 80s, where sci-fi (and the world in general) was full of hope and joy for a future pregnant with endless possibility.

A Brief History of Science Fiction Cinema: From The 1950s to the 1970s

To explain what I mean more fully, let’s have a brief history of sci-fi since the time of ‘Star Trek.’ I hate to gloss over the sci fi boom period of the 1950s, but the majority were influenced by the Cold War pathos of the day. Now, I’m not a fan of ‘Star Trek,’ but the general notions of glorifying the future were ingrained into the programme. Humanity were engaged in interstellar activities, with the mantra of ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’, an emphatic statement of JFK’s world (of course, he was dead, but his beliefs strongly influenced the world until Vietnam and Mr. Nixon). And ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ built upon this, but substituted enthusiasm with surrealism and advertisement (seriously, count the number of brands in Kubrick’s epic!) But an unsubtle fear of the future in the form of HAL predicted what the 1970s held for sci-fi. The Moon Landings and general success of Apollo 11, the death of post-World War II depression and the smackdown of the USSR over Cuba, the future was incredibly bright.

But then the 1970s arrived, and sci-fi took a negative turn. In 1970 the frailty of the Apollo programme became apparent with the ‘successful failure’ of Apollo 13. Vietnam, Watergate (and other political scandals), Carter, rising oil prices/energy crises (thanks to wars in the Middle East), and the failure of Democrats to turn everything to gold led to a new post-war depression, and a glimpse at sci-fi of the day is a testament to this anger and (sometimes) apathy. The first major sci fi film of the decade, ‘THX 1138,’ was a gentle riff on 1984, a dystopian future where freedom is impossible, especially the freedom to love (and, incidentally, showed that George Lucas can do thought-provoking films when he’s not mesmerised by CGI). It’s also an inversion of the Brave New World invention of soma, as drugs are used to suppress emotion, not make people happy. There’s ‘Silent Running,’ environmentalism before it was popular, where one man tries to save the last forest in existence by murdering his ship mates. ‘Soylent Green’ and ‘Logan’s Run’ present a future endangered by overpopulation, widespread poverty and starvation. ‘Dark Star’ made a mockery of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ It’s an interesting parallel to today, with many of the same fears polluting not only the future’s promise, but polluting the future itself.

For sci fi, the 1980s really began in 1977. Think about the cinematic event of all time. Think of a film that brought smiles to a generation muted by the distress of the 1970s. Yes, ‘Star Wars’ reinvigorated fun filled science fiction (and dumbed it down at the same time, but that’s not the issue here.) And what else appeared in 1977? ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ The aliens weren’t typical 1950s monsters who wanted to take over the planet. These aliens were more afraid of humans than we were of them. It was a childlike vision of a close encounter, one that opened the possibility of positive relations with extraterrestrials. And although technology plays a part in final communication with the aliens, it is human perseverance that brings the two species together. Now, what’s more positive than that statement? Human development isn’t hindered by technology, but aided by it.

A New Hope…

Of course, I can’t let the 1970s slip by without 1979, and the double-whammy of ‘Alien’ and ‘Mad Max.’ (and, funnily enough, the film version of Star Trek, balancing out the negativity of the previously mentioned two films). ‘Alien’ is all about the folly of humans when it comes to interfering in the unknown, and the threat of aliens to humanity. Then ‘Mad Max,’ a dystopian vision where law, order and justice mean nothing and one man has to administer it himself. Both brilliant films, actually. It’s interesting how the two opposing genres of science fiction brawl and taunt each other throughout the 1980s, an ‘Alien’ always fights a ‘Close Encounters’, and a ‘Mad Max’ always tries to shoot down a ‘Star Wars’. The 1980s was full of contradictions, and the lasting enmity for life from the 1970s was always a danger in the 1980s. However, overall, the nature of science fiction in the 1980s was one of hope for the future, and of foregoing the present for the future.

Science Fiction Cinema In the 1980s

In the 1980s, Regan made the future seem viable again, even at the expense of that very future (recession economics). People were happy to flaunt everything, prosperity rose, and happiness reigned…or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Flash Gordon kicked off the 1980s as a frivolous and fun sci fi epic. Science fiction comedy really boomed, with the likes of ‘My Stepmother is an Alien,’ ‘Spaceballs,’ and ‘Innerspace’ giving us intergalactic giggles. Star Trek had no less than four films released continuing the space opera about a positive future. The trilogy of Star Wars ended on an emphatically happy note (well, until Lucas decided to stick the ghost of Hayden Christensen in the last scene for the DVD release!). So many positive films about the future enter my head from the 1980s, it’s impossible to note them all down. The ferocity and brutality of ‘Aliens,’ where the aliens (and humans) are vicious, mindless murderers (and also star in an allegory of the Vietnam War) is countered by the many sci fi films that show humans and aliens working in harmony, or aliens as innocent creatures. Think about ‘E.T.,’ ‘Alien Nation,’ ‘Enemy Mine,’ ‘*batteries not included,’ and ‘Cocoon.’ In the last three, aliens even go so far as to help humans. Back to the Future (and its sequel) was a thrilling time-travelling adventure, where things went wrong but were easily solvable.

Even suspiciously dystopian films still gave hope to a great future, and were not simply representations of the present. ‘Blade Runner’ is all about an all-powerful corporation running a rundown city, and about the dodgy nature of cloning. However, there’s talk of off-world colonies, and happier places elsewhere (i.e. not in America). Rather than a commentary on the present, it’s a précis of the future (as are the majority of Philip K. Dick novels, written by a man who, under the influence of drugs, saw the future as something wildly different from the present.) The imagery is startlingly futuristic, and the music, although distinctly 80s, still conjures up an image of the future through the electronic rhythms, much like ‘Mass Effect’ does brilliantly. Ridley Scott truly proved his weight in gold with ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ in a creation of a likely (but not altogether positive) future, one not merely a recreation of the present.

‘Short Circuit’ is a testament to the power of robots to help humans progress. Unlike most sci fi about robots, Johnny 5 is not a killing machine that will destroy humanity (although he was initially a robot built for war). In ‘Short Circuit,’ robots attain consciousness without the need to wipe out their creators. Now, ‘The Terminator’ is about exactly that possibility, but it’s neutered by the technology of time travel. And James Cameron has always had an anti-human streak in his mind-set. It’s a seminal sci fi film that still ends on a positive note. ‘Robocop’ depicts a broken down society, but that’s more about describing present-day (back then I mean) Detroit than exploring the future of Detroit. That’s one of the more rooted science fiction films in the 1980s, one that attacks the present at the price of the future. And is also a major precedent to modern science fiction.

Click here for Part II

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