One of the defining political issues of our time, societal inequality is showing up on-screen in films like In Time, Elysium and The Dark Knight Rises, and TV shows such as Continuum and Arrow. How successfully do these works engage with the issues they raise? Is the imagery they use at odds with the narratives they follow? And what would radical anti-inequality SF look like?
Why does SF hate poor people? It seems to echo the media’s hate for the poor.
In the comic book universe heroes are rich and the public, the majority of whom are working class, are gullible and easily deceived. Baddies are also working class. On the other hand, the majority of Stan Lee’s heroes aren’t rich and the only one who is, Iron Man, had to have his heart ripped out in order to become good.
Arrow changes this dynamic by introducing a good rich vs. bad rich characters with the working class caught in the middle but ‘good’ representatives come in the form of cops, legal aid lawyers and a hero-in-the-making. Also challenging the historical norm are Continuum‘s greedy rich who are trying to sustain capitalism while the working class ‘good guys’ are trying to destroy it, although their means of doing so are those that are usually associated with the ‘bad guys’.
Misfits are the people Batman would beat up. They’re working class petty criminals and yet they’re cast as heroes – the last people you’d want to be endowed with superpowers, but they’re good people who’ve made mistakes and are paying for them by doing community service. It’s just a shame they’re forced to kill so many probation officers.
Another not-so-clear-cut character is Firefly‘s working class Jane. It’s only by chance that he was on the side of good, until someone buys his loyalty. The characters he’s surrounded by on Firefly ultimately shape his actions as heroic despite his occasional insubordination.
District 9‘s aliens were different from the norm. They’re poor, living in a low-tech shanty town in Johannesburg, South Africa. The geographic location alone sets this film apart from the rest but to have aliens that aren’t superior to humans in terms of technology and are instead oppressed is fantastically unique.
The V for Vendetta mask is an international icon used by Occupy and Anonymous, and is synonymous with revolution. The masked man could be anybody, you never see his face. He’s the everyman.
In Time embodies the great metaphor ‘time is money’. The poor are living in the moment, desperate to earn enough to survive the day, the next hour, the next second, while the rich waste their time and their lives in comparison, they have the luxury to plan for the future.
Long established series Star Trek eliminates want via technology thereby completely avoiding the issue of inequality in human society. Deep Space Nine is the first in the franchise to both mention and use money, the much coveted gold-pressed latinum.
We need ‘chosen ones’. People that take a stand. People that can level the playing field. Neo in The Matrix, for example. “It’s really sad that they didn’t make a trilogy out of [it],” said Laurie. Minor character deaths matter, elevating their importance – a theme that started with The Matrix. Buffy’s solution to fighting the ultimate evil at the end of the last season was to share her power among the potential slayers – the ones that could inherit Buffy’s role should she die. Sci-fi’s exploration of inequality means that it’s often linked to marxism.
Foz Meadows in the audience commented: A utopia is the product of acts so vile committed by monsters that it pushes society over the tipping point and inspires it to eliminate all inequality as a result.
I’ll admit my first impressions of Laurie weren’t favourable – I actually wrote ‘self-obsessed + stuck to phone’ after she walked into the room – but once she started talking I could see how passionate she was about the topic under discussion. She likes Equilibrium and doesn’t understand why it wasn’t more popular. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve watched the DVD many times. It’s an example of a utopia gone wrong. Post-WWIII all expressions of emotion are banned, including art and colour, and a drug is taken to suppress all feelings. If caught with contraband or failing to take the drug is punishable by death. As always, those in power flout the rules.
Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series was snubbed by Roz – Haha! I like this woman.
Best panellists: Laurie Penny, Roz J. Kaveney and Carrie Vaughn.
*My favourite panel of the first day.