In a recent interview, Simon Pegg — star of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, and honourary patron saint of nerds everywhere — became yet another voice in a chorus of those lamenting the supposed decline of our society.
“Part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised [sic] by our own taste,” he told Radio Times in an interview last week. “Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys [. . .] Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”
It’s surprising that Pegg, someone who has sunk decades of his life into science fiction and general geekdom, has managed to miss the point of science fiction so entirely. His comments aren’t unprecedented — in fact, the complaint that science fiction and fantasy are somehow “childish” or regressive has about as long a history as the genres themselves.
It just hurts to hear it from someone I thought was on our side.
Admittedly, there’s a kernel of truth to Pegg’s complaints, which he further explained in a knee-jerk reactionary blog post on his unfortunately named website, Peggster. “The more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become,” he clarified, citing theory by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard which argues that we are compelled to retreat to the escapism of youthful passions to avoid the harsh realities of the world.
I get this. As a journalist, I spend a sizeable chunk of my time desperately trying to get people to care about complicated, sometimes depressing stuff, when I’d likely have an easier time writing listicles about what your favourite Avenger tells you about your love life. Most science fiction and fantasy is meant to make money, and it’s usually easier to get people to see your movie when it doesn’t remind you of ISIS, ebola, police brutality, or One Direction’s inevitable breakup.
These genres aren’t inherently limited in their capacity to tell stories that are morally, structurally, and ideologically complex.
But there’s a big difference between criticizing the shallowness of big-budget vehicles like Transformers, and criticizing entire genres. Though bad sci-fi and fantasy are certainly not unheard of, I’d argue that our growing fascination with stories about dungeons, dragons, space explorers, and time travel doesn’t signify any significant shift in our tastes. After all, we still pay to hear stories about people.
As the adage goes, great science fiction tells us more about our present than its future — look no further than films like Her or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Children of Men for examples of films that use fantastical premises to reflect our actual world, and to tell us more about it.
Even the film Avengers: Age of Ultron, which Pegg slyly references in his original interview as an example of Hollywood sci-fi excess, is deeper than it might seem. The film’s villain, a superintelligent cyborg, rises to power via the Internet and the surveillance it affords him, a commentary on our information-driven, NSA-dominated era. Its characters also boast arcs more complex than those of your average romantic comedy or thriller.
These genres aren’t inherently limited in their capacity to tell stories that are morally, structurally, and ideologically complex. Strip away the orcs and the supercomputers, and you’ll find that most sci-fi and fantasy are about what most fiction is generally about — namely, what it’s like to be alive, be it on Earth or in Middle-earth.
I don’t buy that the geekification of the Western world has somehow infantilized us or led us to avoid what’s really important. If anything, it’s a sign that we’ve become more willing to hear stories about the same key issues and ideas, but told in a new and unique way.