Aside from the necessary business of revealing character, I’ve come to believe that power is central to great storytelling. It’s more than just a means to an end; specifically in science fiction and fantasy, power and influence become explicit gravitational centers of a narrative. They are externalized and, more importantly, artificial.
Almost everything that happens in Lord of the Rings—nearly every character’s thought and action—hangs on Sauron’s power. Both the good guys and the bad guys in Star Wars tap an invisible power, informing decision after decision, scene after scene, sequel after sequel. In both universes there are endless examples of breathless heroism, but it’s heroism against the misuse of technology. Sure, people can be awful towards each other, and that’s what the rebels and the fellowship threw themselves against; but without the aid of some serious amplification, evil is localized.
Sometimes artificial power is felt indirectly. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman tricks us into thinking we’re watching a film about memory manipulation. Certainly that’s a major theme, but the real power that drives the plot is humanity’s utter inability to navigate rocky personal relationships. Seen through this lens, it’s an inverted power Kaufman uses.
Ditto Synecdoche, New York, another Kaufman puzzler: the dazzling power to recursively create worlds within worlds almost distracts us from the real story of a despicable hero grappling with time and losing.
Kaufman’s stories blur the line between artificial and natural power, but they are, in no uncertain terms, science fiction. The power he introduces feels personal and human, but this is accidental at best; Being John Malkovich might seem like it deals with the human powers of love and jealousy, but in the end it’s about the devastation wrought by the twin horrors of ambition and consciousness, and every character is swept helplessly along by the current.
Natural power is more subtle, yet stands in stunning contrast. A novel about a character escaping a violent spouse, ala Rose Madder, is surely about power, but the power comes from within: characters are both revealed, and their nature is used to reveal other characters. In science fiction / horror / fantasy, power is overtly externalized; it’s not human. This is what fascinates me so much about these genres, and I never consciously knew it, not really.
This isn’t just a modern hallmark. I’m finally reading Frankenstein, and stunned to find the exact same levers and pulleys at work, written more than century before the atomic era.
I confess that neither the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor the politics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Shelley perfectly describes the trap into which all but the most ruthless science fiction villains fall.
Also found in Frankenstein is the curious underside of artificial power, the cautionary tale:
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
This is Uncle Frank in Hellbound Heart, Seth Brundle in The Fly, Doctors Pretorius and Tillinghast in From Beyond. Characters who get their hands on a powerful inhuman force invariably die or go mad, or at the very least regret what they’ve done and try to warn others. (A curious exception to this might be Dr. David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I don’t pretend to know what really happens to him at the end. Looks optimistic, in any case.) What can be made of this? There doesn’t seem to be an intrinsic value to these warnings. They appear to be simply the ying to technology’s yang, a constant back-and-forth, the cost of admission to evolutionary progress. (It bears more than a passing resemblance to the conservative political mindset, by the way, something I’ve never been able to square with the radioactive twentieth century American can-do-ism that spawned every modern superhero there is.)
The dark side to technological overreach is almost baked into the cake. Last night I revisited Disney’s 1979 flop The Black Hole, a childhood favorite. It’s rife with hammy dialog and spits in the face of plausible science, making it a party favorite, but at its heart is a horrifying tale about a mad genius throwing everything he’s got at unveiling nature’s final mystery. It’s a story of Lovecraftian scale, and just as terrifying as anything I’ve encountered in horror. Dr. Hans Reinhardt purposefully steers his massive spaceship into the heart of a massive black hole, taking dozens of terrified victims along for the ride. I’m not sure what’s more frightening, the act of being physically torn apart by gravitational forces that bend time towards infinity, or the madness that drives Reinhardt to punch a hole in reality in the first place. Ultimately the power in this story is a human one: ambition. To go farther, to explore, to drag humanity kicking and screaming into the future, to leave a legacy. Maybe that’s the ultimate power in science fiction, and a human one after all.