The Evolution of Sci-Fi: From Philosophy to Dream

Sci-Fi has been a massively popular genre since it’s conception in 1818; when Mary Sheller had Frankenstein published. While it has been developing in significant ways over its 202-year life, one of the most interesting mutations in the genre takes place in between the 1950s and modern day. This overhaul is what causes such a vast rift in the focus of stories between older works and our current era manifestations. The question is, what exactly is this rift, and what are the main effects of it?  

A good starting point for Sci-Fi works of the 50s is the famous author, Ray Bradbury, who authored literature such as: Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451. One of the greatest qualities of all of Bradbury’s work is his ability to twist themes and tones into the most unlikely of settings and stories. A great example of this is his space bearing adventure, The Martian Chronicles. A marginally spoiler free synopsis of The Martian Chronincles’ plot is given in a small quote on the back that states, “Earthmen conquer mars and then are conquered by it.”  

The interesting thing about this book in retrospect is how it builds its world with so many interesting aspects, and yet focuses on almost none of them. This may seem like a harsh criticism of a great work, and in some ways, it is; but, what the story like many of it’s time does is use these interesting aspects to look at morals, themes, and philosophies in strange, crazy angles. A good example of this is near the beginning of the book in which it is casually mentioned that the ‘martian race’ uses a metallic magma like substance to cook their foods. This very estranged and foreign idea is merely touched on in the grand scheme of metaphor and symbolism that The Martian Chronicles has. Of the many philosophical ideas The Martian Chronicles seems to hold, later Sci-Fi stories seem to lack. 

In 1976, a complete surprise of literature struck the surface. It was so good that a massive hit piece of cinema was made as a sequel only six months after it came out and revolutionized the way we see Sci-Fi. Star Wars is one of the most popular Sci-Fi franchises in the world and has been since its birth as a concept. One of the reasons for its explosion in popularity was how unique and simple the story was. The universe was well built, the characters were fine, but most of the fanatics cared about the elements that comprised the environments. Things like blasters, armor, speeders, and obviously light sabers were given much more emphasis than they would’ve gotten in any other story. The conflict and theme are literately black and white most of the time. There are still some interesting philosophies like questioning if the protagonistic Jedi are actually the good guys through characters like Mace Windu, and questioning if the two conflicting sides could live in peace through characters like Bendu. Asides from these exceptions, there is a little symbolism in the elements as well. Many would know that a light saber is a representation regarding to the focus of it’s wielder, So while Star Wars focused a lot more on its environment, it still had some interesting angles on issues. However, the jump from here to modern Sci-Fi is where the true width of the fissure starts to show.

In 2013, a sudden surge of Japanese media had started to surge into the west, in all of it’s entirety. While we’d seen shows like Dragon Ball make big waves; there wasn’t anything that quite beat this massive migration of anime consumers. One of the anime responsible for this was released only a year earlier, it’s name was Sword Art Online. Sword Art Online was a big hit in the community, bringing praise and infamy from many directions. The show is a part of the popular anime genre known as Isekai; in which stories usually comprise of a bland protagonist being transported to some sort of fantasy world. In Sword Art Online’s case, the main protagonist is trapped in a video game world where failure in game translates to death in real life. In the case of this story, there is a meager one main theme that almost never develops, and a bunch of really flashy environmental variables to ‘make-up’ for that. The story of Sword Art Online is even simpler than that of Star Wars‘, with no true established conflict till the end. Things like the designs, animation, and ‘cool’ factor are the pure focus of the show; there is an entire episode based around getting another ‘cool’ sword for the main protagonist that has no effect on the rest of the series.

It should be said that not all modern Sci-Fi is completely devoid of story. Good modern examples do exist, movies like Arrival prove this point; however, the shift is still very visible in many examples. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s astray from what Sci-Fi really is. It’s not horrible to enjoy some basic popcorn entertainment; in fact, it’s likely that even some of the greatest writers of our time can enjoy these stories for what they just are. What we should think about is where we draw the line for a ‘balanced’ story, at what point is it equally flashy and thematic?