Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Religion and the Origin of Science Fiction

Where does science fiction come from? Since it is a form of art, and since it does touch many people, then it must necessarily touch something that was created long ago, when mankind came to be.

The origin of science fiction must necessarily start at the origin of mankind and not at the origin of modern technology (like electricity) or even ancient technology (like agriculture).

So where was science fiction when we came down from the trees?

Religion as Science

Some evolutionists have argued that religion is science without the scientific method. Religion, faith, beliefs, and superstition are all based on explanations of the world we live in. If you’re a caveman whose father is deathly sick, and after you happen to hit the wall three times or close your eyes and pray or tear your hair out, he gets better, you might assume that the events are connected. You would not test this theory as you would a scientific theory because you would not risk your father’s life.

If two months later your mother gets sick, you perform the same ritual, and it works, then your theory was right. If she dies, then perhaps you knocked on the wrong place on the wall or maybe you didn’t pray hard enough or maybe you didn’t tear out enough of your hair. You will find a malleable explanation that fits both instances rather than discard the original proposition as false.

If you’re a caveman who steals from his friend then almost gets hit by lightning, you might decide that the two events are connected. You would not test that theory, scientifically, to see if it would happen again or if the events were unrelated, because you would be afraid to be hit by lightning.

In trying to explain why there is rain or thunder, why there is a famine, a draught, a hurricane, a tsunami, or why people get sick or die, theories explaining these events are formed in our heads. When enough theories are formed, a belief system is created, what physicists call a ‘Theory of Everything’. Sooner or later a person believing strongly enough in this theory and persuasive enough to draw other people in creates followers and believers in this theory of how the universe works. From there on, rules are created that apply to the believers, and the road from there to organized religion is clear.

As a side note, this means that any life-form on earth or in space whose intelligence would be advanced enough to create science and overcome nature would also develop religion. In fact, it would develop religion first.

The Emotions of Religion

But religion also carries with it a few extras that science does not. It carries with it a few emotions that are easily classifiable.

It allays fears – Religion allays fear of death, as much as possible, by telling us that death isn’t the end and that there is something good afterwards. It also allays fears during hard time, telling us that things will be better or that god has a plan, etc.

A feeling of unity – Many religions provide its community a feeling of togetherness that can’t usually be found in other communities. Everyone knows everyone else is likeminded. Everyone gathers in the same place at certain times to celebrate the same things. A feeling of unity is a powerful thing, and both democracy and science stay away from them.

A feeling of the divine – When you believe in certain gods, you feel like you can touch something that is beyond you and above you. For a few short instances, you feel what true grandness must feel like. It’s a feeling of majesty, of a grand plan, and of your place in the universe.

Science Fiction and Divinity

A large part of science fiction and its allure is the feeling it gives, that grander things are possible, that majesty bigger than what we know exists. Technology we haven’t dreamt of, races the likes of which we’ve never seen, mysteries we haven’t conceived of, societies more advanced than our own that are now dead - all these things hint at things that are bigger than us, at a majesty to a universe of which we are but a cog. Many stories are based on a grand plan to the universe. It could be that laws of physics are introduced or supposed that make us see a more logical Theory of Everything. An alien race or advanced technology may give us a hint of things grander than ourselves.

A good chunk of science fiction tunes into that basic human feeling that existed when we came down from the trees, the feeling of majesty, of awe, of things greater than what we know, of a big plan that might exist - things that are found through science... and religion.

Science fiction comes from religion. And religion comes from science.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

What Does Cronenberg Find Weird?

We’ve already talked about the top four storytellers in TV today. Now, slowly and sporadically, we’re starting a four-article series about the top four storytellers in cinema today.

Storytellers in Cinema

In television, the storyteller is the writer. In cinema, the storyteller is the director. There are many kinds of directors: an actors’ director, a visual director, a lyrical director (Greenaway, for example), a storytelling director, and so on. In this column, we care about those who tell a story best. There are four storytellers in cinema whose power to captivate us when telling us a story, even a crazy story, is unmatched. They are, in no particular order: Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg.


Today we’re going to talk about Cronenberg. He is the director (and, often, writer) of The Fly, eXistenZ, A History of Violence, Naked Lunch, Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, and more. Cronenberg tells us dark and strange stories, sometimes disgusting, at best weird. And yet we sit there and take it, not because of the subject itself, but because Cronenberg can tell a story.

There are things we can tell about people who tell stories, facts we can deduce by the way the story is told. It would be the easiest thing in the world to try and deduce something about a mind that invents such eerily dark stories. But let’s take a different tack. Let’s put aside the content of the story, and try and learn things about Cronenberg simply from the way he positions the camera.

Cronenberg’s Frames

Take A History of Violence, for example. Leaving the story completely out it, most of the frames in the movie give us a feeling that something is very very wrong. And yet these frames are usually of one or two people, just standing there, in front of a completely ordinary background. But that nagging feeling that something is wrong does not leave us.

That nagging feeling is not our imagination. Cronenberg put it there for us. He put it in the frame.

But where is that wrongness found? It isn’t in the background, because the background’s normal. It isn’t that the shot is framed in a particularly freaky way; it isn’t. It’s that somehow a bigger emphasis is given to the character’s head. Everything that’s wrong in the picture is in the character’s head (and it doesn’t matter what character we’re talking about). But, look hard as you can, you won’t see what’s wrong. Cronenberg doesn’t tell you what’s wrong. You have no idea what possibly could be wrong. But you do know that something is very wrong.

What’s Behind Those Eyes?

If we look even more closely at the way the frame is positioned, we’ll see that the picture is framed in such a way as to make us look not exactly at the person’s face, but at what’s behind it.

Cronenberg is focusing out attention not at the person’s face, but at their intent, that murky, intangible thing which causes us to act and think.

There is something behind a man’s (or a woman’s) eyes. Something lies behind that normal shell, behind the skin and bones that nature gave us. Something lies behind our thoughts. Something inexplicable that brings about those thoughts. Something beyond what we understand, beyond what we know is there and Cronenberg obsesses over it.

When he looks at a person, and when we look at a character through his eyes, what we see is: intent. A Cronenberg character looks at someone or says something, and there is intent in those eyes. And behind the intent, there is... something.

What Cronenberg Finds Weird

Cronenberg doesn’t know who we are really. All he sees when he looks at a person is ‘intent’. But he knows that there is something behind that intent. He feels it in his bones. And he feels that he doesn’t know what that thing is or where it comes from or who it belongs to. He doesn’t know why that intent is there, what it really wants. And he fears that our intent may come from a dark place or that it may not actually come from us.

Look at his movies again, and you’ll see how he frames the shots in such a way as to put intent as the most important thing in almost every shot. There is something mysterious behind those eyes, his work screams. If the shot is about two people talking, you’ll see that very often, they get equal treatment in the frame, taking the same space and equally interesting to the eye. That is because they are both human, both have intent, and both are therefore equally mysterious. Cronenberg doesn’t care who is in the shot, as long as s/he’s human. It’s the intent he’s trying to catch; that’s the real hero and villain of his stories.

And that’s where his darkness comes from.