Furry Writers' Guild Forum

The Lonely World of Modern Sci-Fi

It occurs to me that modern sci-fi is currently awash in loneliness.

In the last two years, we’ve had big tent-pole movies like The Martian, Interstellar, and Gravity, all about individuals who find themselves alone. Physically alone, emotionally alone. Just isolated in general, literally being the only character on the screen for huge chunks of time. We follow them as they either learn how to be at peace with their solitude or go insane from it. Even a semi-recent indie sci-fi like Moon is wholly about an isolated protagonist. On top of that, Ex Machina earlier this year isolates its two human characters in a wilderness retreat. And last but not least, my favorite maybe sci-fi show currently on TV, The Last Man on Earth, is about, well … being alone on Earth.

All of the above are very entertaining, so I’m not necessarily putting forth a lament. It’s just an interesting shift to observe. What brought this intense ‘solo’ focus about? Why is sci-fi so lonely right now? Is this just a momentary phase or does it signify something about the state of modern Western culture? It’s been too prevalent lately for me not to think it’s reflecting something. But, then, I’ve been known to think far too much …

Interesting observation. Thanks for posting it.

Sometimes a trend like this reflects a certain emerging style, or authors inspiring each other to write similar-themed works. Other times it’s merely coincidence. But now that you’ve observed it, I find myself wondering a little as well. Maybe it reflects the loneliness of the modern SF fan (read that “heavy computer user with few real-life friends”) sitting eternally alone at his keyboard and screen?

That’s scary deep, Rabbit. (but probably true)

I tend to think it’s a lack of imagination, or someone says, “This looks like it could make us some money. Let’s do it too!” (hence the similar themes and all the remakes) It’s sad to think that popularity or simple money determines what stories become movies.

Why can’t they go to a bookstore or library, pick up a book, read it and say, “This would make a great movie. Let’s have a talk with the author!” Avoid jumping on the bandwagon.

I don’t know about most, but I get tired of “copycat” movies. I want something truly original to watch.

I think it’s perhaps jumping the gun to call them “copycat” movies; several of them fall into a rather time-honored “man against nature” dramatic scenario, and even though The Martian and Gravity both involve astronauts left behind after destructive accidents, there’s not much else they have in common. We can draw a fairly straight line from The Martian all the way back to Robinson Crusoe.

It’s an interesting observation and it strikes me as true, but I wonder whether it holds as true for written science fiction as it does for cinematic. Looking at Nebula and Hugo nominees over the last few years, I see a lot of military SF and space opera with the occasional weird dystopia, but nothing I’d describe as lonely in this way: Ancillary Justice, 2312, Coming Home, Fire with Fire, Annihilation, Redshirts. I tried looking at bestselling books as another barometer, but it’s hard to get a good sounding; popular books tend to be series fiction, and most are fantasy, not sf. But the most popular sci-fi series seem to be dystopias like Wool, followed distantly by mil-sf like Honor Harrington. (If I had to hazard a guess as to why, it’s because both of those milieus are terrific for Chosen One narratives, and those seem to be reliable drivers for series fiction.)

I think the simpler truth is just the bottom line:

People cost money.

In the world of movie-making, making a film that can happen on just a few sets with a very limited cast is MUCH more attractive, financially. Not just to a studio, but to the directors, producers, and everyone who has to gamble their time and money on a film being a success.

In short: Don’t read too much into it. :slight_smile:

Really? Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about movie-making costs, but I’m having trouble believing that the cost of a few actors counts for much relative to the cost of all the special effects in these sorts of movies. The movies listed weren’t exactly low-budget films.

So, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Jupiter Ascending. Gravity and The Martian both were made for around $100,000,000, Jupiter and Interstellar both pushed $175. Jupiter Ascending barely covered production costs with box office, the rest mad at least 3 times their production budget. Similarly, Pacific Rim cost almost $200 and only made $400 meanwhile Jurassic World was made for $150 and made $1.6 billion. I am sure there is some budgetary reasoning behind turning to small cast sci-fi because they are considerably cheaper by 50-100 million dollars.

I agree with Chip’s line of thinking. These sci-fi films are basically the next evolution of Cast Away taking place in a more unforgiving, unexplored, uncharted frontier than we have access to on earth anymore.

Probably more than you think, and certainly more actors, plural, than you think. It also includes, just as expensively, your skilled trades: Makeup, wardrobe, set construction, all your cinematography, sound, etc etc. It’s extraordinarily rare to do a movie with just a handful of actors (swooning at you, Moon).

CGI is still expensive, but once again you’re paying for people.

(Parts of my family have been involved in the non-glamorous side of movie production, including doing things like stand-in photography and location scouting. Actor salaries are iceberg tips.)

I think there’s a lot of merit in the ideas being discussed here, in particular these two:

It’s worthwhile tracing this idea of man vs the natural world, as it does form a pretty important cultural theme. In university I came across a critical theory that talked about ‘the frontier’ in American culture. The idea was that the notion of the frontier was a wilderness where men went to prove their masculinity in such adversity. Removing a gendered focus, you can see how in quite a lot of films, the wilderness is used as a backdrop where people demonstrate their strength, often because the society they find themselves leaving is one that is too comfortable. If we look at western culture at the moment, there is no real great idea of a frontier needing to be explored or pushed back. Our concept of the wilderness has sort of lost its teeth considerably, since you don’t have such vast wilderness areas in our culture. Yep, there are wilderness areas, but they don’t feature as prominently because there are no blank spaces on the map any more. Of course, the only black space now is off-planet. I think there’s certainly a brilliant essay needing to be written comparing The Martian to Robinson Crusoe, considering in both a large emphasis is put on growing a crop to keep them from starving.

I’d also say that the sense of isolation is down to the post-modern condition - I very much agree with those who have related it to the lonely realities of modern urban living. I’d also say it reflects our own scientific expectations about the universe - that the vast distances make it a cold, lonely place, were it’s mostly likely that any other life is going to be simple bacteria.

The trouble is you’re only looking at movies. So much good fiction happens in serial TV these days, and the casts are huge.

Dark Matter
Agents of SHIELD
Almost Human
The Expanse
Falling Skies
Childhood’s End
The 100

And that’s just stuff I’ve actually watched. Some of it got cancelled, but there’s no shortage of serial sci-fi and science fantasy (especially from Netflix and Syfy) rolling off the assembly line.