Defining Science Fiction by Analyzing NBC’s New Show Revolution

It’s very hard to define the term “science fiction,” a topic often discussed in my science fiction book club.  Searching the web reveals endless essays on the topic.  It’s not possible to come up with a one-size-fits all definition for science fiction.  I’m going to take another approach.  I’m going to analyze the new show Revolution point by point, and say which parts I think are science fiction and which I think are fantasy.

revolution

Revolution is about a family thrown into a dark world of a collapsed civilization.  The show begins 15 years after a worldwide blackout with a father dying, a son being kidnapped and the daughter seeking her long lost uncle Miles to help her rescue her brother.  The daughter, Charlie Matheson, played by Tracy Spiridakos is a kind of less hard, less savvy, Katniss Everdeen, so the story carries on the current vogue of girl action heroes.  Miles Matheson is played by Billy Burke and he’s your standard action guy.  This is why I loved Breaking Bad so much, none of the characters were cookie cutter clichés.

Strangely enough, the medium level bad guy in Revolution is Giancarlo Espositio playing Tom Neville, a ruthless, but sometimes coldly kind, captain of a militia, who previously played a ground breaking character in Breaking Bad, Gustavo “Gus” Fring, who was also ruthless with a strange tinge of cold kindness.  You’d think Espositio would have tipped the Revolution writers not to go for the obvious, and make him different.  I fear such a wonderful actor will get typecast.

Premise

Revolution pictures our world without electrical power or electronic gadgets – a powerful “What if…” scenario.  We’re all so depended on computers and electricity that it’s an intellectual adventure to pretend to live in a time of 18th century technology.   Revolution hints that some kind of force field is capable of dampening all electronics, and even electricity production.  Science knows solid state electronics are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that are generated as a byproduct of nuclear explosions.  However, mechanical turbines should continue to work, and even old fashioned tube electronics might continue to work with EMP fields.

There is no science to suggest that such a energy dampening force field is possible.  It’s just a writer’s gimmick to advance the story.  Does that make Revolution a fantasy?  It’s a damn cool idea, but so is a school for wizards.  In other words, I have to say the premise of Revolution is fantasy.

In Revolution, there is a reason why and how the power got turned off. Revolution’s creators are holding that back as a mystery, like the mystery of the island in Lost. Mystery is one of the prime movers of fiction, so you can’t blame them for holding back, but I’m worried I’m going to be disappointed, like I did with Lost. Unless they come up with other mysteries, I doubt I’ll keep watching.  Bad Robot Productions, the company that made Lost, and produces Revolution, does have a track record for upping the mystery ante every week.

The mystery of who has killed off the power isn’t very science fictional to me. For it to be really science fictional, it has to be plausible, so we think, “Could this really happen?” When Jules Verne and H. G. Wells wrote stories about men traveling to the Moon, people did think, “Hey, that might be possible, what will it be like, and how will they do it?” That’s science fiction.

Contrast Revolution with The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is set in the 22nd century after fossil fuels have been used up, after global warming has changed every thing, and after crop monoculture and genetically modified agriculture has failed.  In The Windup Girl Bacigalupi develops kinetic energy machines using springs.  This same technology would work in the world of Revolution, but so far we haven’t seen any ideas like this, and I’m not sure the Bad Robot people think this way.

If the Bad Robot Production people had been truly creative, they would have taken the same scenario and come up with a totally new post apocalyptic society – one without electricity, but very creative.  They would have envisioned new forms of mechanical power, the return of sailing ships and dirigibles, funky new bicycles, rocket powered airships, and new forms of animal power.  They could have had computers like Babbage dreamed about, and new art forms not depended on digital media.  That’s what science fiction is about.  What they gave us is Mad Max Lite.

Post Apocalyptic World

Post apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction, and for two reasons.  First, I love how an author imagines people surviving the collapse of civilization.  Second, thinking about how to rebuild civilization offers countless intellectual puzzles for my mind.  Now that’s some good clean science fictional fun.

Revolution is just a post apocalyptic fantasy that allows guys to fight with swords.  At least so far.  Why are guns rare but swords plentiful?  How did they gear up for sword production so fast?  I know I’ve only seen two episodes and the science fiction world building has been slight – mostly using stock after-the-collapse imagery.  In fact, they seem to have gotten most of their imagery from Life Without People.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has a very long history which Revolution must be judged against.  When I saw the show announced this summer I had hoped for a television version of Earth Abides or The Day of the Triffids, or the British TV series SurvivorsRevolution is closer to The Postman by David Brin, more about adventure and less about the details of survival, or efforts to rebuild civilization.  Both feature a ruthless militia leader trying to start a post-civilization empire.

Now, this political subject is a honest science fictional topic.  Rebuilding our society after we’ve mined all the easily available resources is a scientific challenge worthy of much speculation.  However, in the first two episodes, Revolution hasn’t dealt with scarcity.  At one point Charlie’s Uncle Miles, tries to bribe someone with a small chunk of metal, which I assume we’re to think of as gold.  Gold nuggets are very rare, what gold we mine nowadays is molecules of gold processed from tons of ore.

What people use for money in Revolution’s apocalyptic world is a fascinating idea to explore, but so far the show ignores the issue, other than this one transaction with a tiny lump of yellow metal.  Good science fiction will explore all aspects of a possible future.  Revolution takes a Indiana Jones approach to the story, using slight of hand on facts, and diverting viewer’s mind with action and violence.

We have to ask ourselves:  Is a story science fiction if it’s set in a science fictional setting?  I don’t think so.  We are told Miles Matheson is a man who is good at killing people.  Miles’ abilities to fight are so unbelievable that they remind me of the recent Sylvester Stallone action flick, The Expendables 2.  That makes me think Revolution is more inspired by video games than science fiction books.  It’s appeal is to would-be first person shooters than folks who like to read speculative fiction about possible futures.

I wish Revolution’s level of violence was more like Breaking Bad’s, and it focused more on clever plots with interesting science fiction speculation.

Population Dying Off

If the power went off all over our world, how long could we support 7 billion people?  Revolution doesn’t even try to answer that question.  It skips 15 years immediately.  There’s some flashbacks, but no explanations.  The starting point of most collapse of civilization stories are a plague that kills off most of the population, or nuclear war that kills off most of the population, or aliens from space that kill off most of the people, or some kind of natural or cosmic calamity that kills off most everyone.  Revolution looks like the population took a major beating, but we’re not shown how.

I’m currently reading The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, another literary look at the end of the world, much like The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Now this is real science fiction in my mind.  The Dog Stars is serious, philosophical, speculative, and worthy to be called science fiction in my book.  Revolution is decent fun without any real thinking involved.  That’s a shame.  For a story to kill off billions of people there should be more details.

In Revolution most of the population has disappeared and we don’t know why.  The writers obviously wanted a low population Earth for the story but hasn’t explained how everyone died.  In other words, after the collapse stories are so common in the mundane world that the producers don’t even feel the need to explain.  They are using a post apocalyptic world as a setting, just like Star Wars used a galactic empire as a setting.  There’s no science fiction speculation in either, so just accept the premise.  Revolution is an action adventure story set in a realistic but unscientific world.

Surviving the Collapse

I’m disappointed with Revolution because it makes no effort to show people surviving.  Everyone has plenty to eat, clean clothes without having to wash them, there’s no worry about diseases or bad water.  After 15 years, how good will clothes look?  There’s no effort to show how people make new clothes.  I don’t expect Mad Max fashions, but the show should speculate some, at least.

The plot is driven by Danny Matheson’s kidnapping.  Our characters don’t seemed challenged by any other problem.  The two episodes involved plots to set the stage so Miles can kill a bunch of people, and convince Charlie that killing is the way to operate.  The only survival going on is whether the audience won’t be killed off watching Billy Burke kill a dozen tough guys every episode.

Cliché Science Fiction

Whenever I read a new science fiction novel, or watch a new science fiction show I hope to discover a new idea or perspective. It’s hard to come up with a totally original idea nowadays. There just are too many fiction factories out there.  Barring originality I look for creative style – if you can’t deliver a new idea, at least present a mash-up old ideas in a new way.

Science fiction has become as formulaic as a murder mystery. I believe most SF fans find comfort by embracing their favorite sub-genres so writers cater to ever more baroque presentations of the same old ideas, creating Über-clichés. Revolution is merely the current incarnation of a long line of stories about the breakdown of civilization. Some reviewers call it dystopian, but I disagree. The original meaning of dystopia was an anti-utopia. In modern parlance dystopian has come to mean any unpleasant future. That’s a corruption of the original intent of the world. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a dystopian novel because the government of Big Brother was suppose to represent a view of communism, which before Stalin was seen by many intellectuals as a utopian ideal, but Orwell speculated communism would be hell instead of heaven.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was dystopian because it was anti-utopian. Revolution isn’t anti anything. Revolution uses a cliché science fictional setting to create an action adventure story. Collapsed civilizations are a good way to create a setting for rationalized violence, like westerns.  Post apocalyptic stories are good for creating situations where your character can kill a lot of people.  Audiences can’t seem to get enough of that kind of violence.

The proper categorization of Revolution is post-apocalyptic science fiction, which covers stories about the aftermath of collapse of our current civilization.  A common cliché within apocalyptic fiction is freemen versus brutal militias.   So Revolution is a sub-sub-genre.

To further complicate the problem all new fictional creations must compete with the most creative works at the moment. Taking on a new TV show for me, means finding something to watch that competes with my recent favorites, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and Glee.

Watching the first episode of Revolution was a big letdown for me. Oh, it still has possibilities. But most great shows have fantastic first episodes, and Revolution’s was just ho-hum.  I did watch the 2nd episode and will watch the 3rd.  I have hope.  Revolution does have possibilities.

On the big screen they usually go for bigger and bigger action, usually involving saving the world. That’s an expensive proposition for a TV show, but Revolution has a very large scope.  There’s room for lots of action and speculation.  Let’s hope there is less of the former and more of the latter.

JWH – 9/25/12

7 Responses

  1. I haven’t seen this show yet but I was thinking the other day that if we were in a situation like this, it wouldn’t take long for humanity to digress into the dark ages. We like to think we are a civilized society and an advanced species. Take away energy (which is an actual possibility if we don’t find alternative fuel sources soon) has and we’ll all start acting like animals within a short period of time.

    • I’ve always said that civilization is a thin veneer over anarchy. This is another reason why we should be disappointed with Revolution. Good post apocalyptic novels constantly deal with issues we’d face if we didn’t have all the rules to keep us in check. The collapse of civilization would mean doing away with laws, but it would change social customs and even ethics.

      Most writers picture post apocalyptic life as immediately losing all forms of government, but I don’t think that would be true. It would be if 99% of the population dies off in a plague, but not for other scenarios. What would life be like here if gasoline went to $10 a gallon? That could be very disruptive. What if we had a plague that kill 30% of the population? We could have all kinds of bad things happen and we’d adapt and go on. It’s that adaption that’s fascinating for science fiction stories. Revolution doesn’t explore these issues at all.

  2. Eh, this is television. What do you expect? You really can’t compare it to science fiction novels.

    But I haven’t seen it, and I don’t intend to start watching, so what do I know? :) It sounds like it’s just exactly what I expected, though.

    However, I disagree about what’s science fiction and what isn’t. Just because we don’t know of something which could cause this effect doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. I’d be very careful about assuming what’s possible and what isn’t.

    And there’s plenty of science fiction that seems to include things that aren’t possible (like FTL travel or psychic powers). It’s fiction, after all.

    Science fiction can’t always be separated from fantasy, but where it can, it’s generally about the explanations for such things. If a wizard put a spell on the planet, it’s fantasy. If some currently-unknown device or natural property did it, it’s science fiction.

    Furthermore, in science fiction, you usually have to just accept the premise. The premise might be hard to believe, but so what? It’s the premise. If the story follows logically – and entertainingly – from that premise, that’s all we should expect. If you can’t accept a SF premise, what are you doing reading science fiction in the first place? :)

    • See Bill, you’re always settling for less in SF by accepting what is. I want more out of science fiction. I want SF producers to be more creative with what they give me. I want SF television and movie producers to stop underestimating our intelligence. There is literally thousands of things they could do in Revolution to make it better. The first of many is simply don’t do what’s already been done before.

      I think the job of science fiction writers is to come up with a worthy premise.

      Let’s face it, Revolution ain’t going to make it. It’s too mundane. Successful TV involves doing something new. Bad Robot missed a great opportunity. We are facing the collapse of civilization with global warming. If they had the creative balls they would have dealt with global warming. It would have offered endless possibilities for relevant story ideas. Instead they created a premise that allows for stories about sword fights.

      • You’re right, Jim. I don’t expect much from television. And I really don’t care much, either. I care about books (and games, too), but not about television or even movies.

  3. I think when it comes to a TV show, serious thinking is not really what any of us TV fans want to do when we’re taking time to escape from the white collar think tank we come home from; otherwise, read a book. Revolution is digging deeper with each episode though, and my DISH coworker and I think they’re doing a decent job keeping suspense so far. We watch commercial free with Auto Hop on PrimeTime recordings too because we’re TV people, so we can watch more of it when he comes over to visit.

    • I’ve stuck with Revolution, but it’s still pretty much centered around violence. Last night’s episode suggest a reason for starting the militias, and that’s interesting.

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