Science fiction explores narratives about the human condition in speculative settings. Sometimes those settings are the notional future, other times they are our own time made strange by provocative alterations. As a genre, the narratives of SF have a unique relationship to place and setting because they’re very often metaphors too. To further complicate this already complicated relationship SF is built around tropes.
A trope is defined as the use of language in a non literal or figurative sense by deploying metaphor to illustrate a concept. A classic example is “the police investigation led to a blind alley”. According to tvtropes.org “in storytelling, a trope is a conceptual figure of speech, storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognise and understand instantly.” Although all narrative forms are riven with tropes science fiction is dominated by their use.
In science fiction particular narratives are considered tropes, rather than elements of their construction, for example, the benign aliens who arrive only to be revealed as invaders, the robot who strives to understand what it is to be human, and the completely convincing world that is revealed to be a simulation. SF is all the more peculiar because certain single narrative contrivances are also signifiers of much larger ideas: the robot, the spaceship, the future city stand in for unseen and often unexplained contextual narratives of how such things might exist, and, perhaps more importantly, they also give form to much older cultural notions of identity, agency or social order. It can be argued that science fiction is really no different to other genres of narrative expression insofar as setting and character are indivisible from theme and concept, just think of the cowboy and his desert, the soldier and his battlefield, or the detective and the city. In detective fiction the investigator is a representative of the audience’s need to find out how one event led to another, his or her journey in a film noir metropolis in search of clues and through various classes of citizenry illustrations of a much larger view of how all these facets of society fit together.
The figure of the detective is indeed a metaphor when viewed in a certain way, but consider how complex this idea of character, setting, theme and metaphor becomes when it is suggested that the detective isn’t actually human; Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner 1982 journeys through a future city in search of replicants, five genetically engineered and lab-created super-humans who have illegally returned to Earth in search of their creator. What is apparent in Blade Runner is that this series of narrative metaphors play out in a setting that is itself another kind of metaphor. Could the Los Angeles as it’s depicted in Blade Runner actually exist one day? Perhaps, but when one considers the figure of Deckard without the setting of the film, the narrative of Blade Runner would mean something quite different.
This mix of larger narrative metaphor and setting in SF realigns narrative framing into something both familiar and exotic. In Sets In Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, Charles and Mirella Affron argue that science fiction cinema is “…posited on the tension between character — the fate of individuals, space ship crews, whole populations — and environments. Science fiction narratives must, of necessity, foreground their decors. Whether dystopic or utopic, science fiction tests the values of contemporary society by altering relationships between human beings and their environments.”
The setting of Blade Runner, for example, is a restatement of the classic SF future cityscape trope that illustrates the difference between our time and then, placing the audience into the future, the specifics of place and time re-imagined as familiar but crucially different. Elements of Blade Runner echo Fritz Lang’s Metropolis 1927 – the massive buildings, flying machines coursing between the city’s towers, the stratified social order of its society, from the aristocratic wealthy living in penthouses down to street level or lower where workers and the unemployed jostle for space. Blade Runner overlaid this familiar SF setting with elements of another kind of exotica, the languages and signage of Asia, a conflation of an optimistic future of interstellar travel, genetic engineering, memory implants and corporate domination, with the dystopic grime of decaying post colonialism, a future where the certainty of Anglo-American dominance had been superseded and a time when the hope of leaving Earth was a “chance begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.”
Blade Runner has of course been a hugely influential film, not just as one of the more successful adaptations of stories by Philip K Dick and his trademark narrative themes of estrangement and identity, which in turn spawned a litany of adaptations of Dick’s short stories, but also as a benchmark film in its imagining of a future world and of future cities in particular. Blade Runner was also a cinematic forerunner of cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction that emerged in the mid-1980s which had a long wave effect on numerous films and TV programs from Wild Palms (Kathryn Bigelow, Keith Gordon et al, 1993) to Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo, 1995). The template of cinematic cyberpunk was a melange of tropes, the all powerful corporation, the hacker resistance, the meeting of technology and human consciousness to name just the three of its most prominent features.
One of the most interesting interpretations of cyberpunk and its philosophical ruminations on the nature of identity is Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995). Where the true nature of Deckard’s identity in Blade Runner was left tantalisingly ambiguous, the hybrid nature of Ghost in the Shell’s main character Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka) is spelled out in the film’s opening as she is literally manufactured, a sequence that combines industrial fabrication with pseudo-water birth. In Blade Runner Deckard, a product of the Tyrell Corporation, has had his dreams implanted. Although psychically autonomous, Deckard is as connected to his native landscape as are the pyramids of the Tyrell Corporation – he is owned by them, and he does their bidding. In Ghost in the Shell, Oshii takes this idea one step further. Kusanagi is a cyborg — part human, part machine — with a consciousness that literally connects to the web. She can see the city as a construct of data, overlapping maps and diagrams of the sprawl of highways and tunnels through which she traverses on foot, in cars and in helicopters, the integration of her consciousness and the physical world complete. The plot of Ghost in the Shell riffs on other elements of Blade Runner such as false memory implants but one of its most notable individual achievements is how the film depicts the future cityscape. Where Blade Runner overlayed its night time noir world with the neon of Tokyo and Osaka, Ghost in the Shell is set somewhere in Asia, a gleaming day time futuristic city of skyscrapers looming over flooded streets and canals, a Venice of the near future that now looks remarkably like a premonition of contemporary Shanghai.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 2003 takes place in Shanghai but the echoes of Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner inform its narrative and the look and feel of its future city. In Code 46 the world is ravaged by desertification brought on by global warming, the ozone layer so depleted that people must work at night and hurry home before the sun gets too high. New exotic diseases have made travel a highly policed and legislated activity available only to those with authorised travel documents, or “papelles”. A single corporation issues the “papelles” from an office in Shanghai under strict security. When a tourist is found dead in India who had travelled on a forged document the crime is traced back to the Shanghai office. An investigator is dispatched from the United States head office to find the culprit.
The plot of Code 46 carries a number of familiar SF tropes — and of cyberpunk — but its riff on the detective genre that was so effectively melded with SF in Blade Runner is given an intriguing twist. To prepare himself for the investigation and the subsequent interviews with corporate staff, William Geld (Timothy Robbins) takes a psychotropic drug that confers on its user a heightened sense of empathy. When questioning worker Maria Gonzales (Samantha Morton) Geld feels her guilt – but also inadvertently sympathises, and then falls in love, with his suspect.
The mix of narrative and setting in Code 46 belongs to a slightly different tradition in cinematic science fiction. Instead of the effects-laden landscapes of Blade Runner or the animated cityscape of Ghost in the Shell, director Michael Winterbottom chose to film Code 46 in Shanghai as it exists now with no post production effects work. By doing so he linked the film in spirit to such movies as Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975) and Æon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005) where real buildings and places are made strange by the creation of disjunctive fictive landscapes. Code 46’s world of encroaching sand and a population of nomadic poor were created by conjoining the marvels of contemporary Shanghai with the highways and deserts of Dubai. Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower, lit with purple neon, looms over the city like a sentinel from the distant future but, unlike the New York-inspired colossus of Metropolis, this Shanghai landmark of the future is made doubly strange because it belongs to our own time.
Like Deckard and Kusanagi, William Geld is a creature of the people who made him. His corporate offices are the air conditioned spaces of the contemporary world. Geld wears a suit and walks purposefully through the long corridors of the Shanghai office, untroubled by the blistering sky above the city nor the heat of the dying world outside. When the drug wears off he simply flies home to his family in Seattle. When science fiction creates its compelling metaphors in a speculative setting we’re not experiencing the future, we’re experiencing the world as it is now. You are there.
Andrew Frost is an Australian art critic, writer and broadcaster. His articles have been published in a wide variety of Australian and international art magazines and he is a regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2007 ABC1 screened the three-part series The Art Life, and a second series in 2009, which Frost wrote and presented. He is the author of the monograph The Boys and is a PhD candidate at the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW.