One of the most compelling moments of cinema I have watched in recent weeks is the opening sequence of Netflix’s new film Stowaway, which follows Anna Kendrick’s character, Zoe, as she and crew are launched into space on a mission to Mars. We watch the gamut of emotion flash almost simultaneously across her face as excitement, wonder, terror, trepidation, and ecstasy flow through her jostled, slammed, spun, and 5-0G journey unfolds. For that 9 minutes, we are launched into space with her; I, for one, felt the echoes of my 8-year-old dreamer self giddy with joy. That kid shows himself often through my borderline obsession with science fiction. I love letting my imagination adventure out in space and explore the alien and the deeply human against the backdrop of the cosmos.
My first sci-fi love was Star Wars. I was obsessed for a long time, and still enjoy the films from time to time. Out of that seed blossomed a love for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and other films like Interstellar. On the flip side of the Jedi’s shoot-em-up good-vs.-bad-shenanigans coin were the imaginations of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke, the former of whose short stories I still hold as the pinnacle of science fiction storytelling. There are (literally) hundreds of them, and each uses the universe as a mirror to show humanity to ourselves, even if we’re on another planet. To this day, that concept and the tales from which it comes are the metric by which I judge my favorite stories, science fiction or otherwise. The only series I know that perfectly balances this bar that Bradbury sets with the creativity of worldbuilding and depth of theme is N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, which wraps xenophobic injustice, generational trauma, and survival instincts around a group of unwilling geologic martyrs. Seriously. Read it. Now.
The genre is sometimes criticized for eschewing character, plot, and theme in favor of cleverness of setting and worldbuilding. Anyone who’s seen the third Matrix film will recognize this issue, where one can almost pinpoint the moment where the creators are so wrapped up in creating their worlds that they forget...plot? I digress. To be sure, the worldbuilding can be fascinating, and entire subgenres of sci-fi are devoted to new technologies, creativity of alien planets, and far-flung futures. But the most potent science fiction I know, and the reason it excites my inner 8-year-old, are the stories that retain the “Bradbury mirror” - those that use the alien to show us what is most human about ourselves. The most beautifully crafted and breathtaking of these endlessly spark the wildfires of my imagination.