Space odyssey, powered by national ambition

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on May 31, 2021

One for all :A plethora of old and recent science fiction TV shows and films imagines a one world government ruling over Earth   -  ISTOCK.COM

While showcasing humankind as a politically united species, sci-fi films also end up laundering everyday nationalism

* Much of the appeal of science fiction as a genre lies in how it allows readers or viewers to escape the bounds of the present

* Many Hollywood epics have used the conceit of far-flung science fiction to glorify the US and American primacy

In August, China’s national film administration released a curious document: A series of guidelines on how Chinese film-makers should craft science fiction movies. Sci-fi films made in China should strive “to implement the thought of Xi Jinping”, the country’s leader, and to “highlight Chinese values... culture and aesthetics”. Film-makers should use such movies to steer their viewers in the “correct direction” and to depict China as a technologically sophisticated and advanced nation. The document lamented the relative lack of successful sci-fi films made in China, and urged elementary and middle schools to show their pupils sci-fi movies, and universities “to strengthen the training, of sci-fi related talent”.

This non-Chinese outsider can’t help but find strange and farcical a bureaucratic State agency that advises citizens on how best to craft stories about spaceships and aliens. Much of the appeal of science fiction as a genre lies in how it allows readers or viewers to escape the bounds of the present, to imagine alternative worlds and realities, to break free from the constraining structures of power on Earth — including the nation-state. Instead, should China’s national film administration have its way, the fantasy of science fiction would merely serve the terrestrial aim of propagandising for the country.

Perhaps that is not altogether surprising. With or without the blandishment of bureaucrats, it seems certain that the Chinese film industry will pump out more features in the vein of The Wandering Earth, a visually-stunning (but otherwise dull) 2019 blockbuster that has become one of the highest-grossing non-English language films of all time. It imagines a near future in which Earth’s only salvation from the sudden explosion of the Sun is an astounding plan to move the planet several light years away to another solar system (through feats of engineering that need not be explained here). Various disasters ensue and Earth only narrowly misses being swallowed by Jupiter thanks to Chinese teamwork, ingenuity, and sacrifice.

Many critics in the West laughed at the film’s nakedly nationalist plot in which Chinese heroism saves the world (and Americans are conspicuously absent). The movie seemed to offer yet another example of Beijing’s global ambition and its sense of itself as a great power whose time has finally come. The film’s nationalism, however, is not a function of it being a Chinese movie but rather of it being a formulaic one. Many Hollywood epics have used the conceit of far-flung science fiction to glorify the US and American primacy. For instance, Independence Day (1996) imagined an alien invasion of the planet repulsed through American courage and cleverness. A rugged American saves the planet from disaster in Armageddon (1998) by blowing up an incoming asteroid at considerable cost to himself (he dies). Time and again in such films, otherworldly narratives become ways to launder everyday nationalism. That Chinese films seek to do the same is entirely in keeping with precedent, even if encouraged by memos from bureaucrats.

And yet, so often, science fiction seems to offer a vision at odds with the more parochial claims of nationalism, dispensing with the map of the world and its mess of boundaries. A plethora of old and recent science fiction TV shows and films such as Star Trek, The Expanse, The Fifth Element, and Starship Troopers imagines a one world government ruling over Earth, with nations dissolved and all mankind living under a single political arrangement, often under the aegis of the United Nations. (The short-lived Doordarshan show Captain Vyom placed the capital of such a government not in New York but in New Delhi.) Indeed, among the many fantastical elements in The Wandering Earth, the “United Earth Government” that rules over humankind seems almost as far-fetched as the notion that you can shift the planet to another solar system.

That altered political reality is as remote and unattainable as warp speed or laser guns, and yet it is so ubiquitous it seems a requirement of the genre. How else can mankind sally forth into the depths of the galaxy if not united as one people, one species? Astronauts see no borders when they look down on our planet from orbit.

Sci-fi films often contain this contradiction, at once presenting humankind as a politically united species — what seems, from the perspective of science fiction futures, the logical fulfilment of a human destiny — while still managing to smuggle in the cause of today’s nation-states. In reality, of course, the conquest of space has been largely an endeavour of national competition, first as an arena of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US and now with the added involvement of China and other aspirational powers such as India.

A film such as The Wandering Earth is effectively also part of this space race. It makes a claim for Chinese greatness: We, too, can produce big-budget, gleaming, entirely forgettable blockbuster spectacles just like the Americans can. But narratives of this kind are also reminders that even leaving the solar system won’t allow the planet to shed its engrained divisions.



Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on September 04, 2020

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