People, the final frontier: how sci-fi is taking on the human condition

The latest films and books in the genre focus on relationships as much as outer space thanks to the Tim Peake effect

Call it the Tim Peake effect. Science fiction has always been as much about the human condition as saving the world from an alien invasion, but now a new wave of films and books are taking that interest one step further and developing an existentialist genre set in outer space.

“The idea of putting a man on Mars is no longer a great leap of imagination,” said David Barnett, whose novel Calling Major Tom was inspired by the moment in 2015 when British astronaut Peake called the wrong number from the International Space Station. “In the 1970s and 80s, space travel felt like something out of science fiction, but now it’s part of modern life, with astronauts tweeting and going on YouTube, and because of that, putting space travel in a book doesn’t freak out non-sci-fi fans as much as it might once have done.”

Man and woman lying on a stony beach
In Seat 25 a woman travels back to Earth to search for her lost love. Photograph: Lagom Pictures

Nicholas Agnew’s prize-winning debut film Seat 25 follows a disillusioned young woman as she comes to terms with winning a lottery for a one-way ticket to Mars. Katie Khan’s novel Hold Back the Stars melds an emotional love story with a tale of a space mission gone very wrong, while Anne Corlett’s novel The Space Between the Stars deals with a woman travelling back to Earth to search for her lost love after a virus wipes out most of humankind.

“I came up with the idea for Hold Back the Stars in 2012 when I realised that I wanted to write about a couple falling in love in space and how they came to be there,” said Khan about her debut novel, which secured publishing deals in 19 countries in just three weeks. “I love science fiction, but what I respond to most is books and films where there’s a very human story.”

She agrees that we are seeing a move towards more heartfelt science fiction. “I think you can trace it back to the popularity of Chris Hadfield [the Canadian commander of the International Space Station in early 2013] and his use of social media. Since then, Nasa has also made great use of social media – as did Tim Peake. What we’re seeing is a closing of the gap between what seems possible and what could never happen, and that opens the door for very human stories to be told amid the escapist fantasy of heading into space.”

Woman in orange protective suit holds up sign saying
Amy Adams tries to communicate with aliens in Arrival. Photograph: Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures

Khan cites 2015’s The Martian and last year’s Arrival as examples of sci-fi films with heart, and it is true that both place our desire for connection at their core. Arrival, which nods to the great emotional sci-fi film of the late 1970s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is particularly concerned with how we communicate both with alien life forms and, crucially, with those we know best.

The success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and recent spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, both of which are character-driven, also suggests that there is a growing desire for sci-fi that makes time for human relationships.

A young woman squats down beside a seated blind man who holds out a bowl.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the character-driven spin-off from the Star Wars franchise. Photograph: Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd

“What’s important is that these films have enough magic to allow us to suspend our disbelief, yet we also respond to the human stories at their core,” said Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society. “Take something like Interstellar [Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film]: there’s some hard science in that film and it’s well-handled because it really explores how those elements would work in a practical, believable way. But what really resonated with me was the relationship between the father and daughter.”

If the central relationship is not right, it can derail the film entirely, as was the case with recent space romcom Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. “With Passengers there is a complete disconnect between the film’s premise and its tone,” said blogger and critic Abigail Nussbaum. “Chris Pratt’s character, Jim, commits murder [by waking Lawrence’s character, Aurora, from her on-board hibernation, knowing that this will lead to her eventual death]. Not only is he ultimately rewarded by Aurora’s decision to forgive him, but the film expects us to see him as a redeemed, male fantasy of heroism and competence that does a lot more to gratify Jim’s desires than mortify them.”

Small girl and man looking at each other affectionately
Interstellar features a father-daughter relationship alongside hard science. Photograph: Allstar/Legendary Pictures

Unsurprisingly, female audiences in particular abandoned Passengers. Entertainment Weekly recently listed it among the biggest box office failures of 2016.

“People were really excited about seeing the film before they learned of the “twist” [that Jim wakes Aurora],” says blogger Kayleigh Anne Donaldson. “Once those reviews started coming out then women just started saying they didn’t want to go to a film that was normalising rape culture. It’s not romantic, it’s creepy. He stalks her around the ship. A director like Lynne Ramsay could have made a great horror film using that exact premise but instead this is a mess.”

Man stands holding a woman's neck.
The relationship in Passengers was seen as creepy and it did poorly at the box office. Photograph: Allstar/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Yet for every failure like Passengers there is a success like the Oscar-tipped Arrival, which stresses the importance of communication in complicated times. “There’s definitely a sense that we gravitate towards these very human yet escapist stories because they offer comfort amid uncertainty,” says Massey, adding that he hopes science fiction will continue to focus on humanity as much as space.

“Even scientists don’t work in isolation – the best science is based on curiosity and scientists digging deep to make a connection and the best science fiction does the same.”

Calling Major Tom is now available on Kindle. Hold Back the Stars (Doubleday) is published on Thursday.


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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