Recently I finished watching a fantasy tv series called “Carnival Row”. It was heavily influenced by themes of racism, the plight of refugees, slavery and even genocide. I was surprised to learn it had been criticised for this, with some people insisting that such ‘politics’ had no place in a fantasy story. However this is nothing new, and science fiction and fantasy have been vehicles of social commentary for a very long time.
Warning – there will be spoilers.
The 2009 film “District 9” is a good example of this. Johannesburg South Africa is the ideal setting for a film about segregation and abuse of an alien race. They might be literal aliens in this story but the parallel to apartheid is clear. It is an excellent film where the very prejudiced main character is shown the error of his ways only through a metamorphosis into one of the aliens himself. He could only achieve empathy by becoming what he despised. I think there are many parallels in today’s world.
Going back to 1976, “Logan’s Run” tells a dystopian story about ageism. The society seems to be happy and living in the moment, and the audience soon finds out that they certainly do live in the moment, as they are killed once they reach the age of 30. Age and experience are silenced, and youth are appeased by mindless entertainment. This sounds very familiar – age discrimination discards the older worker, and the retired elderly are often marginalised and discarded.
1987’s “Robocop” is an endless wealth of social comment. It foresaw the privatization of government programs, as in the Detroit of this dystopia the police are run by a private company, interested only in profit. The movie cleverly included television of its world, asinine programs that were seemingly meant to be funny but with no real meaning, and advertisements that spruiked bizarre products, news programs that hinted at ecological collapse. At the core of it the privatised police department decides that human police officers are a problem so they seek to automate them instead, by the cyborg ‘Robocop’ of the title as well as a full machine (that did not function well.)
The original Star Trek ran between 1966 and 1969, and is a classic example of how science fiction can comment on contemporary issues. “A Private little war”, for example, is a clear example of how big powers (The Federation and the Klingons) arm different groups of people on a primitive planet that is under dispute. Kirk recognises that they are in essence condemning the planet to perpetual war, for their own political gain. Again, the arming of minor countries by major powers is certainly something that we have seen extensively in the last century, as in Vietnam, contemporary at the time this episode was made. “The Cloud Minders” is a story of the haves, living in their cloud city, looking down on the have-nots, on the planet below working in the mines. I don’t think I will need to spell out the obvious message here. In “A taste of Armaggedon” two planets are fighting a war entirely by computer. The ‘attacks’ were entirely simulated, but to be fair, those the computer stated were ‘dead’ were then ordered to report to disintegration chambers. The authorities stated that this way they could fight their war without destroying their planets. Kirk said wars are meant to be messy, that’s why you talk peace. It has an echo of wars fought in places other than where viewers watch on tv, being fed a sanitised version of warfare and believing what they are told.
“The Twilight Zone” (1959 – 1964) was an anthology series that frequently commented on society in its episodes. “The Shelter” is a story about a group of friends that are gathering for a party when they hear that a foreign power has fired missiles and they must all go to their bomb shelters. It eventuates that only one family has thought to build a bomb shelter. The others return to the house and start to bang on the bomb shelter door, first pleading and then threatening. They have just broken down the door when the radio says it was a false alarm and all is well. The neighbours try to pretend everything is as normal. The man of the house isn’t as prepared to do that. The veneer has come off and he has seen his ‘friends’ as they really are. He asks if they haven’t been destroyed without bombs. This show was being made in the cold war era, so the story would have resonated very strongly with its audience. The underlying message that in strife people turn on each other was clear. “Number 12 looks just like you” talks about a world where everyone has to pick a new body that they will be put in, with only a few ‘models’ to choose from. Consequently the entire population is made up of only a few faces. The episode has themes of conformity and lack of original thought (the supporting characters seem very superficial in their speech and thoughts) and also has a theme of unrealistic beauty standards. Plastic surgery is often an option for people dissatisfied with their appearance, and this episode definitely speaks to that fixation with the external. “The Brain Centre at Whipple’s” involves a business owner who embraces the automation of his company, firing more and more staff and replacing them with machines. The joke is on him when he himself is replaced by a robot. Automation is an ongoing concern in the employment market to this day, with often little thought given to reskilling those who are made redundant.
“Babylon 5” (1993-1998), with it’s five season story arc, had a lot to say on a number of issues. It’s the future but we still haven’t learned. There are still rich and poor, the haves and have nots. It suggests that, perhaps, different races can learn to not be racist, though they certainly haven’t yet, and admits that things are never that easy. It sets up heroes to fight against fascism and injustice, and sometimes fail. It is brave enough to admit that winning such wars leaves a vacuum that can be hard to fill. It wasn’t a perfect show, but I always found it both brave and realistic in its tackling of the issues and complications of making things ‘better’, whatever you conceive ‘better’ to be.
And then there is “Carnival Row” itself (2019). It uses a fantasy world of fairies and other magical creatures as war refugees entering a society based on Victorian England, and experiencing slavery, prejudice, discrimination and racism. The cliff-hanger ending of Season 1 takes the society perilously in a direction suggesting attempted genocide is on the horizon. These are very contemporary issues, as refugees are often discriminated against or even locked up as ‘illegal immigrants’, denied justice and such necessities as decent medical care. So many live in camps in Africa and elsewhere where the poverty and suffering is horrendous. These are issues that need to be in front of people, even if it is in the slightly removed fantasy world of “Carnival Row”.
There are, no doubt, many more examples of this aspect of science fiction and fantasy. In literature, there is an even longer history of making comment on the present, though I won’t go into that here. It’s always been one of the things I have loved about this genre, that you can take a problem of today, and by putting it in a different environment, analyse and critique the issues in a whole new way. Long may science fiction and fantasy continue to comment on social justice, and injustice, well into the future.