Anti-science Fiction

If you enjoy reading too much into things (and I do), you can read Jurassic Park as Luddite, anti-science propaganda. The ethical impulse of the entire film rests on Ian Malcolm’s famous line: “You were so concerned with whether or not you could, you never stopped to think if you should.” The movie plays out as a prolonged justification of Malcolm’s ethical wisdom, culminating in several scenes in which the paleontologist heroes essentially decide, nah, screw this research opportunity, it’s too dangerous, let’s go back to digging for bones in the dirt. Much better to be ethical than to extend the bounds of knowledge.

The film is a cautionary tale about scientific hubris, but that gets me thinking about the “scientific hubris” trope more generally. Beginning with Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is a strand in Western film and literature dealing with science or technology, even straight science fiction, that can be described as one giant cautionary tale against scientific hubris. In the past, this anti-science strand was always counteracted by the celebrants of technological progress: Jules Verne comes immediately to mind, he the great anecdote to the pessimist H.G. Wells. (Verne hated being compared to Wells.) Today, however, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Jules Verne, especially in Hollywood. From the reboot of The Manchurian Candidate to the Bourne franchise, the bad guys are more and more often rogue scientists (geneticists, usually, the worst kind of rogue scientist) and the good guys are the victims of Science, always ready with moralistic lines about Humanity.

“I’m not a science experiment, doc.”

“You were so concerned with whether or not you could, you never stopped to think if you should.”

I’m glad no one had that attitude in previous centuries. We’d still be bleeding patients and traveling by stagecoach.

There aren’t many films or novels these days whose protagonists are headstrong researchers pursuing knowledge and advancement at any costs,  even though  the achievements of Western civilization rely on headstrong researchers pursuing knowledge and advancement at any costs.* When did you last see a film or read a book in which the bad guys warned against scientific hubris, in which the antagonist was the guy who tries to thwart the geneticist from conducting a human experiment?

Not in America. For that, you need to go to Japan:

If you haven’t seen it or read it, I highly recommend Paprika. The story follows two psychiatrists who have invented devices that allow people to watch, record, and even enter one another’s dreams. The antagonist is Dr. Inui, a wheelchair-bound purist who believes the devices are unethical and dangerous, and who will go to great lengths—even murder—to stop the devices from being used. Inui considers himself the “protector of human dreams” from the audacity of science. The book describes him as “obsessed with justice” to a “dangerous” degree. He delivers puritanical speeches against the pro-research protagonists:

You see yourselves as brave pioneers riding on the leading edge of discovery! Where’s your sense of social responsibility? You should be ashamed to call yourselves scientists!

He critiques the Western notion of scientific genius from a Marxist perspective:

You seem to think you developed the devices all by yourself, but that’s merely the product of vanity. You didn’t. What about the investors who provided all the funds, the engineers who installed the equipment, the assistants, even the cleaning ladies? You can’t claim the invention as your own.

“You didn’t build that!”

In other words, Inui is the Cathderal. And he’s the bad guy. Don’t expect authors outside the Sinosphere to start putting words like the ones above into the mouths of anyone but their holier-than-thou, anti-scientific heroes.

*TV medical dramas are the exception to this new rule. House and Doc Martin are especially enjoyable; both characters care far more about science and medicine than they do about bedside manners or ethics committees.


9 responses

  1. Uland

    The Faust narrative has been going for centuries now, & its pretty much endemic to Euro/Western people.It is a popular theme among Manga/Anime creators , but its cribbed from Western fiction.
    So its been with us for a very long time & hasn’t impeded us much. I mean, I think one could argue that “anti-science” sentiments would’ve helped avoid tragedy had they been heeded (nuclear/atomic weaponry is the most obvious) & that concerns about individuals use of new, potentially dangerous technologies is perfectly rational & well founded ( of course its going to be couched in whatever moral/ethical/ideological paradigm prevails at the time..)

    May 6, 2013 at 12:05 am

    • Yes, there’s a difference between caution and a principled anti-science stance. Re: nuclear technology, though, I’m not sure I’d agree that it’s necessarily a bad thing. First, if we (America, I mean) hadn’t figured it out first, someone else would have, and that someone else may not have had the same scruples America does. Also, I think a case can be made that the decrease in large-scale, mass-casualty warfare post-1945 is in part caused by nuclear threat.

      May 6, 2013 at 5:09 pm

  2. Nick B. Steves

    Suffice it to say that “deep heritage” is a counter-weight to technology unhinged. Whether that weight is an albatross or a life preserver depends entirely upon a priori commitments. A nuisance at times, perhaps, but we should not say that it has been, on net, maladaptive.

    May 6, 2013 at 12:31 am

    • I probably overstated the case in the post; caution against technological and scientific hubris is not necessarily a device of the Cathedral. C.S. Lewis wrote about it. I guess I’m just noticing a movement from stories that offer a counter-statement to unbridled technology to stories (especially in film) that cast science (especially genetics) as The Bad Guy, the Evil To Be Fought, et cetera. You even see this in comic books and their film adaptations!

      May 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      • Nick B. Steves

        The Cathedral is Who-Whom? all the way down. It is pro-science when it makes white, gun-totin’ Christians look bad. It is anti-science when it makes selected victim groups look bad. Science itself has become so Cathedralized, which is to say, politicized, that I’m ready to scrap the whole thing, and let nature take its course. Natural human curiosity and ingenuity will not be held down long.

        May 6, 2013 at 8:02 pm

  3. JJ


    You’ve got to check out Sam Francis’ essay on H.P. Lovecraft:

    14 words

    May 6, 2013 at 11:09 am

  4. All right, you’ve convinced me. I will go and watch Paprika.

    I heartily approve of using anime as a springboard to deeper issues.

    In that vein, have you seen Ergo Proxy? It’s got a bit of psychological depth.

    May 8, 2013 at 3:00 am

    • I have not, but it’s now on my to-see list. Thanks.

      Everything Satoshi Kon did (he’s the guy behind Paprika) is worth exploring from a philosophical angle. He died young, unfortunately.

      May 8, 2013 at 4:57 pm

  5. Pingback: Paprika had dream implants in 2006; Inception had them in 2010; and Dreamscape had something similar in 1984; and now I will meander off-topic | vulture of critique

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