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

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

Call it the Tim Peake consequence. 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 movies and volumes are taking that interest one step further and developing an existentialist genre set in outer space.

The idea of putting a human on Mars is no longer a great leap of imagination, told 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 1970 s and 80 s, space travel felt like something out of science fiction, but now its part of modern life, with cosmonauts tweeting and going on YouTube, and because of that, putting space travel in a volume doesnt freak out non-sci-fi fans as much as it might once have done.

In Seat 25 a woman travelings back to Earth to search for her lost love. Photograph: Lagom Pictures

Nicholas Agnews prize-winning debut cinema Seat 25 follows a disappointed young woman as she comes to words with winning a lottery for a one-way ticket to Mars. Katie Khans novel Hold Back the Stars melds an emotional love story with a tale of a space mission gone very wrong, while Anne Corletts 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, told Khan about her debut fiction, which secured publishing bargains in 19 countries in just three weeks. I love science fiction, but what I respond to most is volumes and movies where theres 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 utilize of social media as did Tim Peake. What were considering 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 fiction of heading into space.

Amy Adams tries to communicate with foreigners in Arrival. Photograph: Jan Thijs/ Paramount Pictures

Khan quotes 2015 s The Martian and last years Arrival as examples of sci-fi movies 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 cinema of the late 1970 s, Close Encounters of the Third Kind , is particularly concerned with how we communicate both with alien life sorts 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 passion for sci-fi that builds period for human relationships.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the character-driven spin-off from the Star Wars franchise. Photograph: Jonathan Olley/ Lucasfilm Ltd

Whats important is that these movies have enough magic to allow us to suspend our skepticism, yet we also respond to the human stories at their core, told Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society. Take something like Interstellar [ Christopher Nolans 2014 cinema ]: theres some hard science in that cinema and its well-handled because it really explores how those elements would work in a practical, believable style. But what really resonated with me was the relationship between the parent and daughter.

If the central relationship is not right, it can derail the cinema wholly, as was the case with recent space romcom Passengers , starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. With Passengers there is a complete disconnection between the movies premise and its tone, told blogger and critic Abigail Nussbaum. Chris Pratts character, Jim, perpetrates assassination[ by waking Lawrences character, Aurora, from her on-board hibernation, knowing that this will lead to her eventual death ]. Not only is he ultimately rewarded by Auroras decision to forgive him, but the cinema expects us to ensure him as a redeemed, male fiction of valour and proficiency that does a lot more to gratify Jims desires than mortify them.

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 failings of 2016.

People were really excited about considering the cinema before they learned of the twist[ that Jim wakes Aurora ], says blogger Kayleigh Anne Donaldson. Once those reviews started coming out then females just started saying they didnt want to go to a cinema that was normalising rape culture. Its not romantic, its creepy. He stalks her around the ship. A director like Lynne Ramsay could have made a great horror cinema use that exact premise but instead this is a mess.

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 hours. Theres definitely a sense that we gravitate towards these very human yet escapist stories because they offer convenience amid uncertainty, says Massey, adding that he hopes science fiction will continue to focus on humanity as much as space.

Even scientists dont work in isolation the best science is based on curiosity and scientists excavating 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 .

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