March 15, 2018

Psy-phi


The genus of science fiction has difficulty defining its various species. Actual science fiction is the rarest of the breeds, dominated of late by space opera and unimaginative cyberpunk. Space opera is a chameleon genre, masquerading as science fiction when it contains hardly a spec of science.

Fantasy, by contrast, rarely pretends to be anything but imaginary.

Space opera wears the label of "science" the same way the female scientist in the James Bond movie wears a pair of glasses to convince us she's smart. On the other hand, maybe she really is gorgeous, brilliant, and nearsighted. Space opera, too, can be dumb about science and smart about Life, the Universe, and Everything, about how the human mind works.

My name for this particular creature is "psy-phi." The term occurred to me watching Guardians of the Galaxy II, a silly movie in which worthy explorations of psychology and philosophy can be found lurking between the gaudy comic book covers.

Star Wars stumbled into this psychodramatic niche with the first two installments. Alas, the franchise has been drained of all substance since, prompting the need to add another entry to the taxonomy: "space soap opera." Not only scientifically illiterate but equally empty-headed as well. Nothing kills "psy-phi" faster than the pretentiousness of pretend profundity.

Well, except for conflict created solely to generate drama. Any given Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon can entertain in the short term. But only the short term. No matter how much tragedy and pathos is slathered on top, it'll never add up to "drama."

The endless cycles of such melodramatic contrivances echo the traditional (gloomy) definition of samsara, a "suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end." However "realistic" pessimism may be, without learning, growth, and resolution, there is no point to art.

Han Solo was a better person at the end of the first Star Wars movie than he was at the beginning. Luke Skywalker was certainly a wiser person at the end of the second Star Wars movie. But as far as I could tell, everybody still alive at the end of The Force Awakens is the same as they were going in.

Rey, Finn, and Kyo Ren start off as end products, the meaningful transformations having taken place in unseen prequels. Which may explain how forgettable the whole thing is.

So, sure. Space opera can be dumb as a rock about space. But if I can grab onto a rewarding character arc that goes somewhere with some hope of positive change, I'll keep watching.

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