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The beauty and vastness of outer space serve as a beacon for man’s desire to expand continuously, to transcend all of the boundaries that obstruct his desire to be unrestricted in every direction. Mankind is engaged in an eternal striving for more knowledge, and outer space is inexhaustible as far as novelty and thrill go. Up until recently, however, there was still a great deal more unknown about the qualities of the Earth than there is now, and therefore, our planet was a lot more eligible as a thing of mystery in previous centuries. But, with the advancement of science came a great deal of boredom with the patterns of Earthly things, as mankind had become enlightened to a lot of it. Yet, mankind’s craving for the unknown and mysterious is just as vital as ever, and the science fiction genre of storytelling offers a place where the human imagination can run wild, as it would do in a wilderness.
Science fiction is replete with themes which demonstrate the relationship between civilization and wilderness. John Dean states that “The infinite, timeless realms of SF are provocative wilderness landscapes”(1982, p.70). By this, Dean means that outer space, the setting of many, if not most, science fiction tales, is the truest form of a wilderness, because we as human beings know very little about it and its contents, but we desire to know more about it. The whole thing is a wilderness, essentially. For this reason, there are really no limits to the strangeness that a science fiction tale may contain. The human imagination is attracted to this quality of limitless possibility, because it is an escape from the confines of the mundane, repetitive life that we live in our society. It is also made clear through this genre of storytelling that what separates civilization and wilderness is an artificial, centralized authority.
That infinite range of possibilities found in science fiction is expressed as science itself, as one can imagine. The very nature of the birth of science fiction as a genre is a testament to this fact. C.N. Manlove writes in Science Fiction: Ten Explorations, in reference to the establishment of science fiction as a genre, that “This process was initiated through magazines of what was first called ‘scientification’: the pioneering editor was Hugo Gernsback, who began Amazing Stories in 1926. Gernsback’s aim—if he soon found it only partly capable of realization—was to teach the possibilities of science through the medium of fiction” (1986, p.7). We in the modern age are very familiar with the hallmarks of Gernsback’s vision. Science fiction novels, shows, and movies all contain the theme of mankind’s scientific or intellectual expansion and advancement, but particularly mankind’s technological advancement. Manlove writes, “Even if the level of science in science fiction is not constant, the genre could generally be said to be concerned with technology, or at least the area of mind responsible for technological advance—the intellectual, conscious self” (“Science Fiction,” 1986, p. 9) The list of examples of this theme would be far too long to read the entirety of. But, a few examples, such as the Terminator saga, Oblivion, iRobot, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, and Star Trek, both the show as well as the films, should suffice. All of these contain an element of technological prowess within them. The technological possibilities showcased in these works of art reflect mankind’s innate desire to stride through the endless field of possibility. The typical forested wilderness that we all know and love offers a range of possibilities comparable to that which the genre of science fiction offers, because it is devoid of a centralized policy-maker. Infinite possibilities exist where there is no central policy-maker. And where there are infinite possibilities, there must exist danger in one form or another.
The wilderness is a place which teams with danger, partly because of its devoidance of any kind of centralized director or leaning. Beings living in wilderness environments on Earth often do not like each other very much, and therefore, conflict is possible, which is what danger constitutes. Some are hell-bent on conquering, killing, and eating other creatures, while those whom they prey upon are equally intent upon remaining alive and well. These factors combine to create a dangerous setting in a wilderness. War of the Worlds (2005), a sci-fi film directed by Steven Spielberg, exemplifies this wilderness danger quite well, although in a way that could reasonably be dubbed exaggerative. In the film, an alien invasion, which initially overwhelms the governments and militaries of the whole world, leaves the main characters wandering fearfully for a safe place to settle, and throughout the film, the three of them encounter a variety of hazards (2005). Other sci-fi films, shows, and novels offer this brand of danger as well, War of the Worlds simply being one of the more well-known examples to come out recently. In it, the entirety of the once relatively peaceful human civilization is reduced to an utter wilderness upon the attack launched by the extraterrestrial beings (2005). The film shows that science fiction is a place where the danger of the wilderness can become manifest even in the domain of mankind, which is supposed to be a civilized place of limited possibility.
It is theorized by some astrophysicists that there exist different groups of extraterrestrial beings who travel between the stars regularly. It wouldn’t be silly or unreasonable to suggest this notion, considering the inconceivable size of the universe, along with the incredible amount of time for which it has existed. Can we really be alone? Well, if we are not alone, it would lead one to wonder whether or not there are beings scattered all throughout the Universe, all at varying levels of evolutionary development. What if the whole universe contained a much larger version of the Earth’s biosphere? Countless tales of science fiction are centered upon this idea of a universe that is home to a vast diversity of life-forms, some more technologically advanced than others. Star Wars is a good example of this idea. The setting of this widely adored work of art consists of many planets and non-planets (the Death Star), each of which inhabited by creatures of varying intelligence (George, 1977). As a result, some of the worlds in Star Wars are covered with cities that were created by beings with a similar level of intelligence to humans’, like Coruscant (George, 1977). Other worlds, like Dantooine, are inhabited for the most part by creatures of a more primitive nature, and are therefore much closer to a perfect wilderness than Coruscant is (George, 1977). And some worlds, like Tatooine, are somewhere in between, sparsely inhabited by intelligent life; in the case of Tatooine, it is the Tusken people, who seem to come few and far between (George, 1977). Star Wars therefore, along with other works of science fiction, is in accordance with Roderick Nash’s theory of a “spectrum of conditions or environments ranging from the purely wild on the one end to the purely civilized on the other” (Wilderness and the American Mind, 1973, p. 6).
Now it can be readily concluded by the reader that science fiction is a place where the relationship between civilization and wilderness is shown. Science fiction, with all of its fantastic plots and settings, can set the mind free from its boredom. Because anything is possible in the unknown, and outer space is a largely unknown realm to us here on Earth, science fiction is in itself a wilderness, unbound by any artificial, centralized protector or interest. A genre concerned with technological advancement, science fiction always serves to take its audience on a journey through the land of possibility, and to return them with an awakened imagination.
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