How did a sci-fi geek like Simon Pegg miss the point of sci-fi so badly?
Simon Pegg is thinking about retiring from geekdom.
In a recent interview with RadioTimes, Pegg admitted exhaustion with the current state of cinema. Discussing the hits of yesteryear — “Taxi Driver,” “The Godfather,” and “Bonnie and Clyde” are among his favorites — Pegg questioned the rise of genre fiction.
I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.
As far as it goes, this seems a valid critique. After all, these days for every “District 9” that makes you think about the horror of apartheid, for every “X-Men” helping the majority see through the eyes of the oppressed, there’s a dozen “Transformer” explosion-fests that make you think nothing at all. But Pegg didn’t stop there.
Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes... Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously! It is a kind of dumbing down in a way. [I]t’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about... whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.
In the words of the great Isaac Asimov, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”
Science-fiction and fantasy (SF/F) have a specific place in our society. Using aliens or monsters or wizards as a buffer, the creators of SF/F are freed from the shackles of ingrained prejudice. The greatest of them use that as a blunt force weapon of common sense, turning the mirror of society on ourselves. They force us to wrestle with huge questions like “What does it mean to be human?” and “How can we be better, more empathetic people tomorrow than we are today?”
Pegg attempted to clarify his controversial comments in a follow-up blog:
Before Star Wars, the big Hollywood studios were making art movies, with morally ambiguous characters, that were thematically troubling and often dark [...] We are [now] made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc.
Why does it have to be one or the other? This is like that old chestnut women and minorities hear variations of every day: “Why are you complaining about “X” when “Y” is so much worse?” We have to disabuse the notion that people are only able to care about one thing at a time. Enjoying superheroes movies doesn’t preclude a concern for the latest human rights atrocities or political coup. In fact, one could argue the reason SF/F is as popular as it is right now is because it helps society process complex ideas with bite-sized metaphors.
From “Star Trek” to “Star Wars”, “Blade Runner”to Harry Potter, and a thousand thousand other universes, audiences have had epiphanies about racism, sexism, totalitarianism, and every other seedy underpinning of our shared history through the prism of these fictional places. “Age of Ultron” isn’t about Hulk punching a robot. It’s about the best of intentions leading to fascism. It’s about greying up the world. Because in reality, maybe one guy on Earth wakes up twirling his evil mustache and wants to watch the world burn. Most people, even awful evil people, think they are the hero of the story.
There is this idea that “genre” fiction is not as serious as mainstream storytelling. That all the men in rubber masks and ray guns somehow negate any profound exploration of the human condition. But it is a false idea. Laser swords and sand worms merely blur the harshness of reality; a dose of sugar to make the bitter medicine of progression towards a more tolerant society go down smoother.
How does this self-professed “poster child” of geekdom not remember that?