From the heat rays of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the phasers of Star Trek; from the blasters of Star Wars to the Lawgiver of the Judge Dredd comics; from the smart guns and pulse rifles of Aliens (1986) to the Needler of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Rat; the gun in one of its many forms has always been a part of science fiction. It can act as the initiator of conflict (after all, conflict is at the heart of every story) or as a means of resolving conflict. It can possess symbolic value, for example: a character’s casual proficiency in its use can symbolise the depths to which this character will stoop or the brute nature underlying their personality, while a character’s lack of proficiency in its use can symbolise this character’s innocence or the peaceful undercurrents permeating their personality. It can help establish a story’s sense of futurism, by featuring technological advances or improvements beyond those currently possible. And it can simply be a part of a story’s milieu—guns are a part of the world we live in, whether we like it or not, just like bananas and oil rigs and pelicans and the many other things that make up the tapestry that we call life. Any writer must at least consider this fact, especially if they want the world they are creating to be as realistic as possible—the absence of the gun in a story can be almost as telling as an over-reliance upon it.
But wouldn’t it be nice if we encountered this absence a little more often? Aside from the odd examples—Moon, the television show Humans, Interstellar, Arrival—nowadays the gun too-often becomes the only way of initiating and resolving conflict and so possesses few if any other narrative qualities, at least in terms of science fiction films and television. Rather than acting as a small part of a writer’s fictional world, possessing symbolic or futuristic value, or being merely one possibility among many in the search for a way to initiate and resolve conflict, the gun seems to be an end unto itself.
However, science fiction through the ages is replete with stories in which the gun isn’t the primary focus, and is instead merely an aspect of each story’s narrative mise-en-scene, if you will; and stories in which the gun chiefly exists for its symbolic value, both good and bad; and stories in which its sole purpose is to help bed-down the story’s futuristic setting; and stories in which it is entirely absent. Think of Doctor Who (2005-2017) and 2001: A Space Opera (1968), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), Dark Star (1974) and The Quiet Earth (1985). The focus of each, however convoluted or murky, is an exploration of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications that are an integral part of science fiction’s framework. If the presence of the gun makes sense in terms of these explorations, then it is included; the gun is not, however, the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. A consequence of this is that other avenues must be found to both initiate and resolve conflict, opening up a plethora of alternative character-based actions, choices and decisions.
These alternatives then lead us to that which is at least partly responsible for science fiction’s contemporary reliance on the gun: Drama. After all, if a story’s chief concern is an exploration of science fiction’s philosophical, ethical and humanist implications, more than likely these explorations will be focused through well-rounded, contextually realistic characters, and suddenly we find ourselves with a piece of science fiction that has more in common with a genre that many would consider its antithesis. Drama has always been seen as underpinning good literature, while action has to varying degrees been seen as more heavily influencing those genres that might be considered ‘lightweight’ or ‘disposal.’
Do we see science fiction as more closely related to action than drama because that’s what we’ve come to expect? Is it because it’s easier to sell science fiction that way? Or is it that the squeaky wheel that is the blockbuster garners so much attention, marketed as it is to as wide an audience as possible and thus catering to the lowest common denominator? To adapt the old show-business saying: Action is easy, drama is hard. While such an adaptation may seem facile there is some truth to it, especially in the over-saturated media marketplaces of today. It simply takes most writers longer to craft dramatic sequences that it does to craft those based on action, as dramatic sequences tend to require more attention to detail and a finer touch. In contrast, an action sequence can paper over any flaws in its detail orientation and adherence to logic simply through the ‘wow factor’ of gunfights and gunfire, or explosions and flames, or fist fights and car chases, and so on.
The downside of this is that the good ideas in science fiction oriented around the gun often tend to be overshadowed by this over reliance. When the gun is the focus, what tends to fall by the wayside are deep explorations of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications brought to life by the science fiction idea at the story’s core, and so the piece of science fiction in question tends to become just another example of gun-based action that fails to realise its potential. And this is a terrible shame, especially when compared to the emotional heights and depth of feeling that tend to infuse those few pieces of contemporary science fiction film and television that eschew a focus on the gun and instead concentrate on the drama.
Take the BBC television series Humans (2015-2016) as an example. To briefly summarise its science fiction idea: in the not-too-distant future, androids have become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, fulfilling myriad functions and occupations once undertaken by people; introduced into this set-up are a small group of androids who have gained consciousness and are to all intents and purposes psychologically and emotionally human.
It’s the kind of idea that has powered untold thousands of stories. What differentiates Humans is the particular direction in which it focuses this idea. There isn’t a violent confrontation between the ‘bad’ sentient androids and the ‘good’ and their human allies, or a war between the two factions, or an enslavement and extermination of the humans by the androids or vice versa, or a police-led assassination of the androids, or any of the hundred other sentient robot clichés that can be found in the annals of science fiction. It should go without saying that these directions are all action-based, in which the set-up is merely a platform for the gun—in directions like these, the gun can easily become the focus of the story rather than merely a part of it. But instead, Humans takes the dramatic approach, giving us lengthy explorations of an incredible array of philosophical, ethical and humanist implications borne of its central idea, all filtered through well-rounded and contextually realistic characters. The fine line between owning a machine and having a slave, thanks to said machine’s near-human appearance; what it is that actually makes us conscious and human, if it can be explained at all; the existence of ‘sex-bots,’ in relation to both humans and the robots themselves; the socioeconomic impact of using androids rather than humans in a wide variety of jobs and occupations; the divide between genuine (human) companionship and artificial (android) companionship; the age-old argument over nature vs. nurture; the temptation offered to unscrupulous individuals inherent in high-tech and interconnected devices present in the vast majority of homes and workplaces—Humans explores all of these conundrums and more, in great and explicit depth.
To offset the heaviness of this drama, Humans’ creators deftly integrate into their explorations and examinations, a strong sense of action and tension. While this is unarguably a narrative necessity, what makes Humans stand out is the fine balance between inquiry and action that its creators achieve, and the role served by the latter. Instead of merely being action for the sake of action, its creators’ integration of these disparate aspects gives a greater impact to the action that does occur, helping to diminish the sense of desensitisation inherent in so much other science fiction. When enough time is given to establish well-rounded characters, who become the lenses through which their creators focus their philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations, actions that directly affect these characters affect us as well. We care about what happens to them, even though we know that it is only a fiction, and thus these actions have consequences. In a nutshell, this is the difference between characters dying and killing. In science fiction focused on the gun, the emphasis is too often on the killing, which is typically gratuitous, meaningless and devoid of consequence. In a show like Humans, however, the emphasis changes to the dying, forcing us to both confront this eternal fact of life and examine any violent actions behind it. This is no more apparent than in the single appearance of a gun in Humans’ second season, whereby a newly-awakened synthetic who has been rescued by a band of sympathisers is shot dead by a tracker. This death has great meaning to both the characters affected and to us, the viewer—it isn’t glossed over or taken in stride, but a tragedy inflicted upon an innocent; while the gun itself isn’t portrayed as something whizz-bang exciting, but rather a deadly tool that can changes lives forever.
While it presumably would have been easy for the writers of Humans to have taken the road of the gun, we should be relieved that they didn’t. Its presence in the series makes narrative sense, but it is far from the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. Instead, it is just one part of its world and treated with all the seriousness it deserves, and for it to be any other way would have resulted in a very different story. And by successfully integrating dramatic and action-based storytelling styles, Humans is a perfect demonstration of how creators of science fiction film and television can figuratively have their cake and eat it too. Dramatic space, for want of a better world, gives us the time and space to thoroughly invest in, speculate on and mull over the questions a story asks; action-based space moves the story forward and stops it from merely being a polemic; and when balanced delicately this combination can be truly enlightening. In other words, philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations and the gun can simultaneously exist in a story without one overshadowing the other, provided that these two elements relate to each other and inform each other.
(Originally published in Aurealis #101, June 2017)