Red Sci-Fi Final Essay 1

Thursday, December 16

Prompt Four

Provide a comparative analysis of To the Stars by Hard Ways (or another non-Tarkovsky film, live action or animated, we’ve watched in the second half of the semester) and an American sci-fi film of the same period (Star Wars or Alien, for instance). What does this comparison indicate about the differences in Soviet and American approaches to similar problems and themes?

The development of science fiction in the West is often divided into two distinct periods that book-end the second world war; the Golden Age of science fiction and the New Wave of science fiction. The literature of each period is broadly characterized by sets of tropes influenced respectively by the Great Recession and subsequent boom as well as the Cold War, counterculture, and the burgeoning computer revolution. Likewise, Soviet science fiction adheres to a similar pattern, though with different sets of tropes informed by, amongst other pressures, the rise and fall of the communist dream.

In this essay I'm going to compare To the Stars by Hard Ways against American science fiction films from the height of the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s with the aim of understanding how their respective authors and filmmakers approach similar problems and themes. I've noticed two primary differences between the Soviet films we've watched in class and the American science fiction films I grew up on: firstly, western fiction tends to have a comparatively greater emphasis on world building, and secondly are the relative influences of Soviet-style communism and American-style capitalism.

In To the Stars by Hard Ways Neeya, an extraterrestrial with the likeness of a human woman, is discovered by the craft Pushkin aboard a derelict spaceship, apparently a cloning laboratory. Upon returning to Earth, the captain of the Pushkin, Sergei Lebedev, lets her stay in his home where one of his friends begins examining her physiology. She discovers that Neeya's brain contains stuctures that allow her to be controlled remotely. While testing these structures, Neeya experiences flashbacks to her homeworld of Dessa, a polluted hellscape. It is revealed that the craft she was discovered on housed a rebel force aiming to conquer the current regime on that planet. A diplomatic mission is assembled to her homeworld, where the tyrannical regime that poisoned the biosphere has complete control over the production of life-support systems.

In reading and watching the materials for this class what stuck out to me the most was the relative lack of world building compared to the western science fiction and fantasy films and novels I grew up on. This pattern also holds true for almost all the pre-twentieth century literature I've read where what world building is present seems to exist for the sole purpose of furthering the story, as opposed to being an aim unto itself. This all changed when J.~R.~R.~Tolkien, perhaps the greatest English writer since William Shakespeare, published his magnum opus. In the decades since, every great fantasy and science fiction epic from authors such as Brandon Sanderson, Terry Pratchett, Steven King, Ian Banks, and Frank Herbert has put world building as front-and-center, a trend that has even made its way into the pop-culture sphere with the (pre-Disney acquisition) Star Wars Expanded Universe being perhaps the largest and most expansive work of collaborative authorship in history.

Very little effort goes into explaining the mechanisms of the setting in To the Stars by Hard Ways, almost everything seems to happen simply to further the plot with little apparent background or history. How does space travel work? Are they really able to just zoom between planets separated by light years? How do Neeya's powers work? Generally, what is the history and structure of the setting outside of the film? To the Stars by Hard Ways is what would be considered a work of soft science fiction, where the fiction is emphasized more than the science. Note that for a work to be soft science fiction doesn't mean it lacks worldbuilding; often quite the opposite is true.

Western science fiction cinematography contains a great many works like To the Stars by Hard Ways, however many of the most popular works put worldbuilding and "lore" front and center.

One of my big questions about the setting that was left unanswered was about Sergei Lebedev's home, an apparently idyllic estate in the midst of a beautiful, yet clearly cultivated environment. It follows a common trope in Soviet science fiction, most prominently displayed in the Strugatsky brothers' Noon universe (a rich, deep setting that breaks the pattern I commented on regarding world building). Typially such films and novels are set in an idealized marxist future in which communism has been built and what conflict there is comes from contact with more ``primitive'', often capitalist cultures. The regime and political strife on Dessa is a clear example of this.

Dessa is a polluted hellscape, ruined by industry and over-extraction where the main conflict comes from control over basic resources like the gas masks required for people to survive out on the surface. Shortly after the diplomatic mission arives on Dessa, the powers that be, unhappy at the fact that the humans have the ability to render the planet's atmosphere breathable, poisons the only remaining water supply and blames them, inciting a riot. The regime is a caricature of evil, perhaps capitalist, tyrants, willing to go to absurd lengths to maintain power even if it means destroying that which they have the power over.

Western science fiction, on the other hand, tends to take the inequalities and injustices of society for granted and draws inspiration from American and capitalist ideals of underdogs fighting a more powerful force. This can be seen, for example, in Ripley's struggle against the Xenomorph and the Wayland-Yutani corporation in the Alien series, or by the civil war, reminiscent of the American Revolution, in the original Star Wars trilogy. Note that Star Trek, one of the most popular and longest running American science fiction franchises, breaks this pattern; it has an optimistic feel more in common with socialist-realist science fiction of the time than with the likes of Star Wars and Alien. The same holds true for adaptations of Soviet science fiction, like the late great Iain Banks' Culture novels, which are essentially a reimagining of the Noon universe along techno-utopian rather than Marxist lines.

Soviet and Western science fiction films share many similar sets of tropes and are recognizably of a similar genre, however they're each uniquely influenced by the historical, social, and political pressures of the cultures they hail from. Broadly speaking, Soviet science fiction of that period is more characterized by a focus on story rather than setting and often depicts idealized communist societies, whereas contemporary American science fiction relies more on worldbuilding and doesn't care as much about depicting an idealized society.

Work Cited

  • Через тернии к звёздам. Directed by Николай Викторов, 1981.
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