Let’s face it, the final frontier is pretty lonely. The closer we get to the stars, the father we get from home. The more “plugged in” to our technology we become, the more isolated we feel. The more answers we find, the more questions we raise. It’s the ultimate alienation, which is one of the reasons Rodenberry insisted we “boldly go”. Discovery requires sacrifice, and in science fiction, the one thing we tend to sacrifice more than any other, at least at first, is our humanity.
Will we ever recapture that which we’ve lost? Will we ever find our way “home”?
Mythology refers to this journey as an “odyssey”, after the great exiled hero, Odysseus, who was tormented by the gods for his overreaching hubris. It’s also one of the most common story tropes in science fiction, where that alienation is exacerbated by the frightening limitlessness of space and technology and the myriad ways in which that scope can magnify our own flaws.
The character’s destination might not be the same place he started at, such as Roy Neary in Close Enounters of the Third Kind, or Jake Sully in Avatar, but it’s that idea of reconnecting, emotionally, spiritually, with something yearned for, or something lost, that offers a potent sense of completion at the end of those stories. No matter how alienated we feel, science fiction tells us, there will always be a solution to it, whether out there, in the alien wilds or on a spaceship to the stars, or inside us, a part of our own humanity we’ve simply lost touch with.
Those who dismiss science fiction as a cold, clinical, even emotionally vacant genre, are frankly missing the point. Because that’s only where most of the journeys start. It’s about humanity trying to overcome that alienation, to find hope in the direst of speculative scenarios.
I’m going to give some examples, using a movie, a TV show, and a book to illustrate.
1. The Disconnect
a) In The Matrix, Neo starts out as an archetypal cyberpunk protagonist, dissatisifed with his lot, disconnected from the world around him and everyone in it. He yearns for that elusive “connection” to something he can’t quite articulate. A sense of belonging. A sense of direction. A purpose.
b) The crew of the Battlestar Galactica (remake) undergo a spectacular odyssey. But for a long time they’re just fleeing and surviving, without a definite goal. Their Cylon enemies are a sophisticated race of Frankenstein’s monsters, come back to wipe out their creators, so in effect it’s space and technology combining to keep humanity alienated.
c) In Ender’s Game, schoolboy prodigy Ender Wiggin is ripped from his family and home on Earth to begin secret training for an upcoming war against an unseen enemy. It’s a terrifying prospect for anyone, let alone an eight year old who suspects he might be pyschopathic. Talk about alienation.
See also: Ripley in Aliens, Jake Sully in Avatar, Deckard in Blade Runner, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, E.T., Robocop, The Forever War, Dune
2. The Revelation
a) All odysseys require an element, if not a definitive moment, of self-realisation. In The Matrix, that doesn’t actually come when Neo chooses the red pill from rebel leader Morpheus, thus tumbling down the cyber rabbit hole into the “real world”, and the rumour that he might be the prophesied messiah known as “The One”. It arrives at the end of film one, when he’s given the kiss of life by Trinity and wakes up from death inside the Matrix. It’s then that Neo truly believes he’s more than a man.
b) I don’t think there’s one defining revelatory moment in Battlestar Galactica. Each character has his/her own epiphany. But the realisation that there’s a deeper connection between humans and Cylons starts early on, when Gaius Baltar and his Cylon muse/lover, Caprica 6, interact in unprecedented ways. It opens a speculative can of worms, which the show delves into with extraordinary results.
c) Ender Wiggin’s long, difficult road to realise his true potential ends with a stunning twist near the end of the book. Rather than merely training to fight the alien enemies on computer simulations, he’s been fighting them in reality, deploying squadrons of ships via his computer programs. On the day of his “graduation”, he discovers he’s responsible for exterminating the entire alien species. An end result he was born for? Or would he have done it if they hadn’t tricked him?
See also: Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A Princess of Mars, Avatar, The Forever War, Robocop, Dune
3. The Re-connect
a) Returning home, or refinding one’s lost humanity, is the final chapter of an odyssey. In The Matrix saga, Neo ultimately returns to the machine city that created his “anomaly” in the first place, and gives himself up, connecting man and machine in one last heroic plea for peace. In death, he finds his ultimate purpose—not rebellion or war, but communion. His sacrifice to save the machines from the Agent Smith virus is the example for them to follow. And they spare us from extermination. Man and machine can start anew.
b) Again, the reconnection between man and machines in Battlestar Galactica is a gradual evolution over the course of the series. There isn’t one definitive moment. When the Cylons realise that they’re mortal too, the commonalities between them and us become more important then the differences. They’re as lost as we are. They want to find their mythical home, Earth, as much as we do. Each character contributes his/her own piece of the puzzle of this reconnection, but it’s the inexplicable, inextricable union of Gaius and 6 that symbolises the future relationship between man and technology.
c) Despite his new celebrity status, Ender Wiggin, genocidal hero of humanity, is determined not to have that be his legacy. Like Neo, and the crew of the Galactica, and E.T: The Extra-terrestrial, and many others, Ender chooses his own innate compassion to overcome the barriers of alienation. His final gesture is a hopeful plea for reconciliation, resurrecting the alien species he helped wipe out. The boy becomes a man, deciding that tolerance, not war, is the more necessary course.
See also: Jodie Foster in Contact, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Blade Runner, Avatar, A Princess of Mars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Terminator 2, Aliens
Robert Appleton is an Award-winning writer of science fiction and steampunk. His books include Sparks in Cosmic Dust, Pyro Canyon, and Prehistoric Clock. He currently lives in Bolton, England.