The pros of science fiction outweigh cons

Published 10:39 am Friday, March 2, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

Guard: General Kala, Flash Gordon approaching!

General Kala: What do you mean, Flash Gordon approaching?

Guard: On a Hawkmen rocket cycle. Should I inform his majesty?

General Kala: Imbecile! The emperor would shoot you for interrupting his wedding. Fire all weapons when Gordon is in range!

The Imperial Guards fire their laser cannons at Flash Gordon’s rocket cycle.

General Kala: He is escaping, idiots … dispatch War Rocket Ajax to bring back his body!


The lines above are from “Flash Gordon,” a really terrible movie — though the soundtrack by Queen is fantastic. In the movie, the villains get all the best lines and the best costumes, especially General Kala in her black leather uniform, issuing orders in her oddly accented English.

Unfortunately, this kind of movie is often the way people perceive all of science fiction: It’s not to be taken seriously because it’s weird, escapist froth, with poorly written scripts and bad acting, like “Attack of the Crab Monsters” or “Mars Attacks.”

Or it’s the opposite, self-conscious and depressing, like the apocalyptic dystopias portrayed in films like “The Road” or the soon-to-be-released “Hunger Games.”

I don’t think those choices encompass the whole range of science fiction storytelling. And to expose that whole range to students, this week in my literature class we switch worlds.

We’ve been living in the ancient past, reading stories like the Sumerian epic “Gilgamesh” and the Anglo-Saxon story “Beowulf.” Monday we started reading stories about worlds that only exist in the imagination, stories with robots, mutants and aliens set on other planets or the far distant future.

Leading discussion on sci-fi stories still involves the traditional techniques of literature teachers in any classroom. We explore characters, their motivations, development, values and beliefs — whether the characters are human or not. We analyze plots, symbolism and themes, and discuss how settings play a role in a story, sometimes in major ways.

When teaching sci-fi, moreover, it’s also important to take time out for the “big ideas” in the stories.

Sometimes these ideas are abstract — about the space-time continuum or evolution — but more often the big ideas in sci-fi stories focus on human beings, on our beliefs, the ways we treat strangers, our capacity for friendship or love, or how our values are sustained in the face of space age or technological dilemmas. Sometimes the big ideas focus on human beings as “sentient” life forms, exploring how humans use reason instead of instinct as a guide and are self-aware, conscious of identities, names and mortality.

However, big-idea discussions have to start with the basics, so, in many of these stories, humanity is spread out across the solar system and galaxy, using technology that isn’t possible according to the rules of physics — as we understand it today, anyway.

The human characters encounter living machines or aliens, or humans become the “aliens” because the story is set on a different world. Giant crabs or mutated lizards wreak havoc, but often turn out to be monsters we have created. Those living machines are sometimes heroes humans fall in love with and sometimes villains interested only in destruction.

Looking beyond the robots, mutants and spaceships in science fiction, however, is really important. Those things are not what a story is really about, if it’s a story worth reading. Good sci-fi stories are all really about people, even if the “people” in the story look more like toasters or scorpions or teddy bears.

The best sci-fi stories — like all great literature — become mirrors that frame questions for us: Who am I? What am I afraid of? What is a family? Do I really believe what everybody else seems to believe in? How does a stranger become a friend or an enemy? Does having the power to do something also give me the right to do something?

Well-written science fiction prompts readers to ask that same old question people have asked in every generation: What does it mean to be human?

Asking that question while enjoying a story about a robot who falls in love or an alien who sacrifices herself to save humans may lead us to come up with answers we hadn’t anticipated.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.