On science fiction

The new trailer for the upcoming science fiction film Elysium just came out – (you can see the first trailer above, the second gives a little too much away). I can’t think of any other big-budget films coming out this year that consider some of the most relevant issues for development today. From the Wikipedia entry on the film:

In the year 2154, the very wealthy live on Elysium, a massive high-tech utopian metropolis located in orbit around earth that is free of crime, war, poverty, hunger, and diseases, while everyone else lives on an overpopulated, ruined Earth below. The citizens of Elysium live a life of luxury while the citizens of the Earth struggle to survive on a daily basis and are desperate to escape the planet, but those who maintain Elysium will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve their citizens’ lifestyle.

Wow – films which focus  on class divide and immigration are far and few between –  the most recent film that had fallen on my radar which covered immigration was last year’s Senegalese drama “La Pirogue“. Elysium looks like it was 100 million times more expensive to make, which will likely be reflected in the number of people who eventually see it.

I’ve always had a deep fondness for sci-fi, having grown up reading the work of authors like Heinlein, Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Whenever I need a break or just want something reliable to read I almost always snatch a hard science fiction novel off my shelf. It is a genre that seems to have be particularly appealing to economists (including some high profile ones). This should be unsurprising – many of the greatest works take a basic premise (such as Asimov’s three laws of robotics) and turn it into an extended thought experiment – what would the natural implications be of technology X or Y?

While much of popular science fiction has been concerned primarily with thinking about what the future will bring, the trappings of the genre are often used to conceal careful examinations of our current situation. Elysium’s extremes of inequality and immobility are obviously reflections on the current global divide, wrapped up in a action-heavy story involving robots and cool exoskeletons. Similarly, director Neill Blomkamp’s last film District 9, ostensibly a film about aliens and genetic mutation, tackled apartheid and inequality in South Africa in a new and refreshing way.

Another great example is the more recent iteration of the television series Battlestar Galactica, which came out during the initial years of the second Iraq war. At first glance, it was just a particularly gritty show about robots and space battles, yet it tackled serious ideas related to post-9/11 society, including torture, occupation, religious extremism and suicide bombing, all at a time when the most popular TV show about terrorism involved Kiefer Sutherland gleefully torturing and punching people in the heart.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this – perhaps I’m trying to convince those that have been dismissive of the genre before to give it a chance. There’s so much out there which lends itself to developmentistas. Fans of immigration policy would find a lot in Alfonso Cuarón’s incredible Children of Men to sink their teeth into, for instance.

In the summer of 2004, I took a train to Oxford to chat with a few people involved in the MSc in Development Economics (to which I planned to apply) – one of them was the late Sanjaya Lall. While waiting on a sofa in his spacious office in Queen Elizabeth House, I glanced at his bookshelf. A lot of it was what you’d expect from an accomplished, senior development economist – but the very top shelf was reserved for a slew of classic sci-fi books.

One thought on “On science fiction

  1. Josh Tilsley

    June 25, 2013 at 4:11am

    Great post. I am becoming more and more drawn to sci fi that reflects real world issues and the political climate. I’m very fond of the writing of Bennett R. Coles. He comes from a military background and in his latest sci fi novel ‘Casualties of War’ he focuses on the homecoming of post colony war veterans.

    “With a colonial rebellion put down, the veterans of Expeditionary Force 15 can return to Earth. But the welcome they may have expected isn’t waiting for them. The State is on a witch-hunt for someone to blame for the recent war. The Astral Force has placed incompetents in charge of developing a new super-weapon. Families and friends have no concept of what happened amongst the stars. And subtle forces from the colonies are secretly at work.”


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