May 12 2011 2:55pm

Why Science Fiction Needs Violence

Why Science Fiction Needs Violence

Last month, I worried about the dominance of violent action-oriented SF films at the expense of thoughtful, non-violent ones. This kicked off a great conversation among many of our readers, with some of you pointing out brainy films I’d missed, while others arguing the merits of violence in science fiction. Recently, Emily Asher-Perrin noticed the violent turn the Doctor has taken on Doctor Who. Violence does indeed have a place in science fiction; so much so, that I would argue that much of science fiction actually needs violence. And the reason is that in order to be effective fiction, science fiction has to comment on the real world.

In the film Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) attends a writing workshop where he pitches an idea for a movie in which “not much happens” and is more a reflection of “the real world.” The workshop leader, Robert McKee (Brian Cox) accosts him with a list of horrific and terrible things that happen every day in the “the real world” and proclaims that if Charlie can’t find those things in life to put into his fiction that he doesn’t know anything about life and that he will “bore his audience to tears.” Most everyone knows conflict is central to the art of storytelling, but where does violence fit into science fiction specifically?

Science fiction that takes place in the future often questions how humans will behave in an enlightened society. Star Trek generally asserts that humans have improved and are much nicer than they were in Earth’s past when WWIII and the Eugenics Wars were going on. Still, Captain Kirk is beating the crap out of people on an almost weekly basis and likes admitting how humans are basically barbaric and killers at the core. This question is depicted over and over again in the 60s show and summed up best in the episode “A Taste of Armageddon.” In this one, the Enterprise encounters two planets that fight their wars with computers, rather than actual weapons. Casualties are calculated, and victims are then assigned to incineration booths. The citizens of this planet claim they’ve taken away the “barbarism” of war by making it a clean part of their society.

Why Science Fiction Needs Violence

Kirk is outraged and proceeds to start shooting up the whole planet up in an effort to prove why war is such a dangerous thing. At the end of the episode Kirk clearly outlines the reason why war is so terrible is because of how gruesome and violent it is. By having a sterile war, the people on these planets have forgotten why violence and killing are so bad in the first place.

Seen retroactively, this Trek episode serves not only as great social commentary about war, but also commentary about the portrayal of violence in fiction itself. If violence is indeed too clean and too perfect in fiction, we cease to become afraid of it, and tension doesn’t work. A lot of what is troublesome about violence in big-budget action films is just this, if fails to actually remind us of real violence, and thus simply exists within the context of a movie. But how can worlds of robots and ray guns legimately scare us and make commentary on actual violence?

In Alfred Bester’s short story “The Pi Man” the main character is depicted as a sort of agent of chaos who randomly must be both good and evil in order to maintain some kind of mathematic balance in the universe. Thus the character is saving people from doom one second, only to turn around in the next scene and murder someone senselessly. Because these actions are unpredictable, they are effective in terms of shock value. But then, when the reasons for the violence are weaved into a science fiction premise, the story is able to mediate on the subject of violence itself. Similarly, Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” gives us a sadistic computer, which is repeatedly killing off a group of humans only to revive them and kill them in new and horrific ways. Though, the purpose of the story isn’t played exclusively for horror, but rather to comment on how the people begin to treat each other in this dire situation. Under extreme circumstances, the realities of humanity are often revealed, and what’s a more extreme circumstance than a science fiction premise?

Why Science Fiction Needs ViolenceIn a recent interview on The New Yorker’s blog, author Mary Gaitskill commented on the way violence is incorporated into our lives and the creative process saying; “…most people sublimate the violence, are even able to use it in a creative way. There’s an interesting and very terrible line between that sublimation and more overt expression, a line that gets dramatically crossed in wartime situations…” The act of sublimation seems to be the key here. If science fiction, or any fiction, tackles violence it would seem the route would need would to be an acknowledgement without a celebration. This is not to say all forms of violence need to be social commentary. Thinking about Gaitskill’s quote about crossing the line in wartime brings to mind Battlestar Galactica. When the character of Starbuck shoots a Cylon spaceship out of the sky, we cheer. When she waterboards a Cylon prisoner, we cringe. In fact, the use of more realistic violence in Battlestar is part of what made the drama of that show so effective. Instead of having synthetic life forms be murderous robots that looked like toasters, the synthetic lifeforms were murderous robots that looked human and we called them toasters.

Why Science Fiction Needs ViolenceCartoon violence or “comic-book” violence is often attributed to science fiction because it is the genre of the imagination. But when one thinks about stories like “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” imaginative forms of violence don’t necessarily mean unrealistic depictions of the human condition. Battlestar Galactica was smart to use real bullets and real guns to make the stakes of the violence seem bigger. But, one could argue, that thematically, Luke Skywalker tossing aside his lightsaber (the most ridiculous tool of violence ever) is just as effective in terms of sublimation of violence. If what’s at stake is Luke murdering his own father because of some sort of bizarre power bloodlust, then it doesn’t matter if he’s going to do it with a lightsaber or an icepick. Luke is actually doing in this scene a sort of version of what Kirk says in “A Taste of Armageddon”, he’s saying that he won’t kill today.

Conversely, when the 10th Doctor picks UP a gun in “The End of Time” the statement that an emphatically peaceful person would reverse their pacifism for one reason, sublimates violence in the opposite direction by calling into question its possible utility to end other violence.

But in order to get Luke, Kirk, or the Doctor to that point of sublimation, we had to believe the violence was real. Because without acknowledging that, none of these works of science fiction would seem real. And the best science fiction is always real.

Ryan Britt is a staff writer for His commentary on science fiction has also been featured with Clarkesworld Magazine. His other writing has appeared with, Opium Magazine and elsewhere.

Joseph Kingsmill
1. JFKingsmill16
Violence has always been a part of the Doctor. It would just take EXTREME situations for it to come out. I remember him shooting a Cyberman point blank in the chest multiple times in the TARDIS to try and save Adric. Now, he does seem more willing to to do violence than he was in his past regenerations. Is this part of his changing after the Time War or is it more of a reflection of us as a viewing audience?

As for violence in general when it comes to science fiction or any other type of fiction, you should only use what is needed to get the story accross. Too much or not enough will crush will just ruin the story. Look at A Clockwork Orange, we needed the level of violence in that movie so we could understand the motivation of the people who were trying to change him. It wouldn't have been as powerful if that violence happened off screen.
Bike Baykara
3. Amarie
I think the fact that removing violence from sci-fi or any fiction would remove our emotional response to voilence is actually a very good point. And about the Doctor, in the Doctor Who Confidential of the first season of the new series there was a comment on how one of the reasons why Captain Jack was introduced was because he was using whetever means necessary even violence when the Doctor refused, Captain Jack took the necessity of violence to himself while he was on the show.

And of course as JFKingsmill16 said Doctor does use violence in extreme situations. Just the Finale of the Season 4 would prove that and it works so much so that we feel how extreme that situation is because Doctor is considering that very last option. The degree of violence becomes a very good tool then since it is used in a particular way to convey the story. And we are left to look at the screen our mouths open when he destroys a whole Dalek fleet
4. RanchoUnicorno
The issue I have with violence is that the new series, as an example, seems the have the Doctor ready and willing to use lethal violence not as a measure of extreme last resort, but as a tool in his arsenal. Previous, the Doctor was ready and willing to do violence, but only when using other methods had demonstrated total failure. Indeed, the stark contrast that his companions provivded, in a willingness to use violence as a first solution seemed to be a painful indictment on how voilent a species we really are.

As far as violence, lethal and non-lethal, being part of the "real world," I have to ask where you folks live. It's there, and I acknowledge that, but I really don't see it often. I'm happy to say that I've never seen a person killed and can count on one hand the number of fights that didn't involve me and my siblings beating on each other or my kids beating on each other.
Joseph Kingsmill
5. JFKingsmill16
My wife and I watched Family of Blood for the first time the other night and I was shocked by this quote at the end of the show. It reflects kind of what is being talked about in this post and how violent and unforgiving the Doctor can be when pushed over the edge.

Baines/Son of Mine: "He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing — the fury of the Time Lord. And then we discovered why — why this Doctor, who had fought with gods and demons, why he had run away from us and hidden... He was being kind.
He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister, once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that's her. That's always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did."

I really can't picture Doctor's 1 through 8 doing these things. Maybe Davidson if he was pushed. Tom Baker as the Doctor couldn't stop the Dalek's from being created in Genesis of the Daleks when he had the operatunity.
I think they have changed the tone of the Doctor and he is absolutely quicker to anger and resort to violence than he ever was before. I will admit that it looks like the 11th Doctor will not resort to violence as quickly as the privious two.
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt
@JFKingsmill Oooooh I'd forgotten about this in "Family of Blood." It's almost as though the notion of punishement being doled out from more advanced person is what is being commented on here. Which is super interesting.

I'm not sure I agree with you about Doctors 1 through 8 being not as dark as the more contemporary Doctors. I mean the 7th Doctor was pretty dark AND the "Human Nature"/"Family of Blood" storyline was written by Paul Cornell, who originally wrote that story as a novel featuring the 7th Doctor!
7. Black0
@JFKingsmill I think it is perfectly fair to say that some of the tone of the Doctor has changed, but to some extent that was the point. 9 had just finished the Time War and was quite damaged. The moment in 'Dalek' where he is about to blow the last Dalek away is supposed to stand in stark contrast to 'Genesis'. By 10, we are seeing him start to heal, but then he gets a little full of himself, and we have the endings of "Family of Blood" and "Runaway Bride" planting the seeds of the "Timelord Victorious". With 11, we are getting the swing back away from that.

That said, I bought these new incarnations of the doctor because that thread of darkness was there. As ryancbritt noted, "Human Nature" was a novel about 7, and was in keeping with the character of that doctor. 7 had a distinct dark streak that came out after they finished up with the first season (and the stories meant for 6). However, I think the most obvious seeds are visible in 4. Sure, he spends most of the time being flip and casual, but he has flashes of anger and coldness that he would turn on and off, just as 10 did. The difference being that 10 is older and more world weary and has a little less patience so it translates to action. 4 may be the doctor who couldn't end the daleks, but he is also the one who turned to Sarah in 'Pyramids of Mars' after she calls him almost inhuman for being able to carry on surrounded by all of the death and says, "You forget, Sarah, I'm not human." There is no violence there, but I would say that in context, it is every bit as cold as anything the newer doctors have said.
Joseph Kingsmill
8. JFKingsmill16
Unfortunately the 6th and 7th Doctor's are the ones I am least familar with. My local PBS channel barely played their episodes and I have only read a handful of the novels. All I remember was Colin Baker being unlikeable (especially after comparing them to 1-4) and Sylvestor McCoy being kinda silly. Oh, and I also remember Nicola Bryant...
Fredrik Coulter
9. fcoulter
Moving from the Doctor to old, written science fiction...

One of the earliest quotes I remember is Isaac Asimov's "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." (I'm sure that everyone here has read the Foundation Trilogy, right?)

The interesting thing about the quote is how the meaning changes depending on what you feel like emphasizing.

Of course, almost all of the violence in Asimov is "off screen", but the quote stuck with me for around forty years (and counting).
Joseph Kingsmill
10. JFKingsmill16
@Blacko - I think you may be right about things starting to get darker with the 4th Doctor. I have distinct memories of him yelling alot when confronting the cybermen and daleks. I am currently re-watching Pertwee's run as Doctor and there is absolutely no Darkness (at least as of yet) to the character.

I absolutely agree that 9 was damaged after coming through the Time War. And it was reflected very well in how he was portrayed throughout the season. Also watching him begin to heal towards the end of S1 and continue that healing through S2,3 & 4 has been great.
Ryan Britt
11. ryancbritt
@fcoulter I remeber that one! Asimov talks about that notion in a lot of his non-fiction essays too. His meditations on that stuff were always so deft. It's interesting to me he was close with Harlan Ellison, who depicted violence so differently in his fiction. If you've ever read the unfilmed screenplay of "I, Robot" that Ellison wrote at Asimov's urging, you really get the idea of what it would have been like if those two views were combinded into one narrative.
Michael Burke
12. Ludon
I agree with Ryan's comment about Ellison's I Robot screenplay. What a shame we're not likely to see that one get made.

Now. I've been thinking about this topic and I think that in most cases, violence is needed as a shortcut to the tension that drives the story. Everyone can understand the anger of violence, the fear of violence, the waste of violence and the violence of revenge. Even though you'd have no idea of why the 'Chigs' were attacking the Human Colonies in Space: Above And Beyond, you'd understand that this was a story about tensions between cultures. I can cite two other stories - 84 Charing Cross Road and The Efficiency Expert - that deal very well with cultural differences and cultural tensions but would these stories translate (without adding violence or other extras) easily into the science fiction short story or single film format? I think not. Why not? Because we don't know the 'Chigs'. We wouldn't know why it may be wrong to offer to share a meal with a 'Chig' but we, as the reader or viewer, can understand the problem in sending a gift of canned hams to the owners and staff of a bookstore when you've realized after the fact that the owners are Jewish. (84 Charing Cross Road did not have to set up the whole thing for the gag to work, a science fiction version would have to set it up.)

This is not to say that cultural differences cannot be explored in science fiction without - or with little - violence. James White did it all the time. Barry Longyear's Enemy Mine and The Tomorrow Testament are two stories that deal with differences and building bridges across those differences. There is a war going on in the background but that war is the backdrop for the main story. Good reads and an entertaining movie. But, they seem to be largely forgotten. Was the energy needed to grasp the meanings within the story too much for the average reader or viewer? Why does Starship Troopers get mentioned more often than Enemy Mine in discussions of sci-fi war stories?
14. Eugene R.
I think that science fiction needs to *address* violence. But if it should not ignore violence, it is not necessarily the case that it needs to demonstrate violence. The classic trope is for sf to emphasis the value of brain over brawn, siding with the thinker rather than the warrior. Cf. The War of the Wing-Men, in which Falstaffian Nicholas van Rijn is the key to victory. Poul Anderson preferred to call it The Man Who Counts.

Doctor #4: I wonder where we are.
Leela: You mean you don't know?
Doctor: Well, not precisely, no.
Leela: You mean that you cannot control this machine?
Doctor: Well, of course I can control it. Nine times out of ten. Well, seven times out of ten. Five times. Look, never mind. Let's see where we are.
(Leela picks up her knife.)
Doctor: You won't need that.
Leela: How do you know?
Doctor: I never carry weapons. If people see that you mean them no harm, they never hurt you. (Adjusts scarf, exits Tardis.) Nine times out of ten.
(Leela holds onto knife, exits Tardis.)
- "The Robots of Death" (1977)
16. Nightsky
There's also the Seventh Doctor daring a guard to "look me in the eye, end my life" in (I think) "The Happiness Patrol"; and, in "Battlefield", stopping Morgaine from setting off a nuclear bomb by explaining just how horrible nuclear fallout is.
But he's also the guy who blew up Skaro. ("Remembrance of the Daleks")

The Doctor's attitude towards violence varies a LOT, and he's even less consistent in his attitude towards violence perpetrated by his companions--look at Ten in "Journey's End", disgusted with the lot of 'em, versus Four gently chiding Leela to go easy on the Janus thorns, versus Seven sort of impressed with Ace blowing away a Dalek with a rocket launcher, versus Eleven telling off Ambrose for even considering weapons in "The Hungry Earth" versus Eleven benignly observing River's ultra-violence in "Day of the Moon".

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