Thursday, August 27, 2009

View: Zeitgeists through Science Fiction, Part One

I recently saw the movie District 9, and it has de-throned Battlestar Galactica and Lost as the movie/TV show for this, the first decade of the 21st century. The themes present in District 9 are themes not only for South Africa, but for the world as well.

Aliens arrive, and hover over Johannesburg in the 1980s. The South African government of the 1980s concludes that the aliens are, well, not white, and are partitioned from society in the epynonymous District 9 neigborhood outside Johannesburg. Twenty years later, the management company that runs District 9 decides to move the aliens to a new neighborhood. They send a bureaucrat in to do the job, and everything goes wrong.

The director of the movie, Neill Blomkamp, shows Apartheid explicitly. Other themes are present as well. The government of South Africa has essentially outsourced a civic responsibility to a private company. A refugee situation from nearby countries, complicates the situation. Several worlds collide, and English, the alien clicking language, Swahili, and Afrikaans are shouted. The bureaucrat can understand the alien's clicking language, and the aliens can understand spoken and written English. This mutual understanding proves essential to the story.

District 9 is not only science fiction for the current period, it is practically beyond the ken of the world that produced 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that movie, aliens are absent. Their interactions with humans are abstract and enigmatic to say the least. World society is distant, though presumed to have advanced enough to have rotating space stations, moon bases, etc., all by 1999. The 2001 book mentions a global food problem that affects even Americans, but this detail is not explored. Also, by 1969, the Green Revolution in food production had been underway for more than two decades.

Nevertheless, 2001 is way more optimistic about people and societies than District 9 is. Corporate entities in 2001 are benign, compared to amoral-at-best in District 9. Technocrats are smooth, subdued, nearly soporific Heywood Floyd's and David Bowman's. Technocrats in District 9 hook up guns to unwilling humans to practice firing alien weapons. Bear in mind that the former quality is a personality type, whereas the latter describes a specific act. People in 2001 sleep-walk through a space age, while people in District 9 go about their duties in a blunt, clumsy manner. Even the aliens are disorganized!

2001 showed a path to personal (and species-wide) enlightenment via the help of alien gods. The aliens reward various "stages" of human development by dropping monoliths in key points. If a hominid touches a monolith, they suddenly learn the ability to make tools. Millions of years later, the humans have equipment that can measure magnetic anomalies, and detect where a monolith sends a signal. Then, they build a spaceship for a trip to Jupiter, and give it a very smart computer...

District 9 promises nothing. Humans treat aliens, and each other, like garbage. Johannesburg has Houston-style hi-rises and suburbs, with miles of ghettos all around. The one positive aspect is that the races appear de-segregated (at least within the bureaucracies). One odd scene for this blogger was when the bureaucrat tries to buy food at a fast food joint called "Gunter's", which has a cheesy, vaguely German-looking cartoon character on the front of the building. The staff and clientele are almost all African-descendants. A TV set plays constantly near the order/pick-up counter, and staff equipment includes a shot gun.

2001 can be interpreted as a critique of what people were becoming - zombies with less personality than a computer. District 9 critiques many, many things - mostly short-sighted, narrow-minded thinking, that pervades all sentient beings - human and alien.

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