U.S. Intellectual History Blog

1990s Science Fiction and Pax Americana

As intellectual historians, we often find ourselves asking questions not just about what the key academic and public intellectuals were saying about a time period, but also what popular culture indicated to be the zeitgeist of the age. Being a science fiction fan myself, I enjoy thinking about the ways that genre mirrors the cultural and intellectual fears of an era. After reading the excellent guest post on horror and intellectual history from a few days ago, I was inspired to think about the science fiction of my childhood, and examine what it said about the world I grew up in.

During the 1990s, I was entertained by many different science fiction films, television shows, and novels. One, however, that’s always stuck out to me was a short-lived FOX television showed titled Space: Above and Beyond. Set in the year 2063, it told the story of a platoon of Marines fighting in a war against a mysterious alien race. The series was developed by Glen Morgan and James Wong, two veterans of the hit X-Files series. A fresh take on the military science fiction sub-genre, Space: Above and Beyond gave classic stories of war, survival, and camaraderie in combat a fresh spin for the 1990s.

As a child, I found the show to be action packed every week. I marveled at the special effects and the dangerous situations the heroes constantly got themselves out of. However, as with a great deal of science fiction (in all media forms) the action was window dressing for deeper, more serious stories. For instance, I find myself thinking back to the first episode of the series, when our heroes first meet each other at—where else—Marine Corps boot camp. A scene early in the pilot episode, it shows not just that entry into the Marines is as difficult as ever (featuring R. Lee Ermey as the seemingly immortal Marine Corps drill sergeant), but the mission of America’s armed forces is, without an alien adversary, nothing more than a relic of an earlier age:

DRILL INSTRUCTOR: WHY DID YOU JOIN MY PRECIOUS MARINE CORPS?

RECRUIT: SIR, TO DEFEND MY COUNTRY SIR!

DRILL INSTRUCTOR: TO DEFEND YOUR COUNTRY FROM WHAT? WE HAVE NO ENEMIES, ARE YOU CRAZY?! I THINK YOU MADE A HORRIBLE MISTAKE!

Of course, despite this criticism from the drill instructor, it’s clear that the United States is still a preeminent military power in 2063. Now, it’s worth noting that the series is, not surprisingly and understandably, from an American point of view. Nonetheless, the way American power is showcased in the series is a testament to not just the imagination of the writers, but, I’d argue, a reflection of America’s power in the 1990s. This series is, in many ways, a good example of popular culture before September 11, 2001. Despite the fact that the United States is actually fighting under the banner of the United Nations (which makes sense considering that the war appears to be, on its surface, two sentient species fighting each other for survival), there are moments in the series when it’s clear the Americans are taking the lead in some of the most important battles of the “Chig War” (after the derogatory nickname given to the alien adversaries). For example, the beginning of the episode “Sugar Dirt,” which is a retelling of the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal, shows American generals and admirals conversing with military leaders from China and India about an upcoming assault.[1]

Also, the dress and active duty uniforms the characters wear are basically what was being worn in the 1990s. I don’t want to belabor this point too much, since it’s probably budgetary reasons more than anything why the look hadn’t changed on the show, but I still think it’s interesting that, unless you watch the scenes set in space or on alien worlds, you’d almost swear this was a show about the military in the 1990s.  The civilian wear, unlike that of other shows (I’m looking at you, Star Trek and it’s wonderful spinoffs), is also very familiar to a contemporary eye. It’s as though, in some sense, the 1990s never ended.

But, as I said before, the show’s action and adventure elements hid deeper stories. Why, for example, did the aliens go to war with humanity in the first place? At first it appears to be your standard alien invasion storyline. But, the deeper you get into the series, the more it appears that, in fact, human corporations helped start the war to cement humanity’s domination of the stars. Characters called “In Vitros”, or artificially gestated people who are outcasts on Earth, become part of the frontline force defending the human race while still facing prejudice at home and in the armed forces (sound familiar?). And, in a reveal shocking even for a ten year old boy, the heroes learn that, in fact, the aliens themselves are also from Earth (bacteria from Earth, thanks to meteorites, landed on the Chig homeworld’s moon, giving rise to their species at around the same time as humanity).

Considering that the writers for this series worked on the X-Files, such plot twists don’t seem surprising nearly 20 years later. Nonetheless, thinking about the centrality of the United States to the series—in a world where Americans “have no enemies” until one, literally, falls out of the sky—is interesting to think about in context of Nineties’ concerns about America’s place in a post-Cold War world. We ran out of enemies in the Tom Clancy series of novels, just to take on pop culture example. And, like in Space: Above and Beyond, the nation needed an extra-terrestrial threat to once again justify its leadership in global affairs in Independence Day. The series Space: Above and Beyond showcased how alien invasion science fiction stood for the concerns and, in some sense, hopes, for a post-Cold War American audience.


[1] By the way, I can’t be the only person who noticed which Chinese flag was shown there. They don’t specify if that’s supposed to be a Taiwanese general or, I suspect, that China at some point between 1996 and 2063 reunifies with Taiwan and adapts non-Communist Party rule.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert,

    Interesting post. Science fiction is one of my favorite genres due to its ability to ask important (and sometimes controversial) questions that can be presented to audiences without “pushing” people’s “buttons”; those sensitive topics that, under a different form, might activate a “shut-down” mode in thinking. When working on my Master’s Thesis on the Space Race and Civil Rights, I happened to watch an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (“Far Beyond the Stars”; Season 6, Feb. 2, 1998) that poignantly addressed race relations in a very dramatic fashion.

    “Also, the dress and active duty uniforms the characters wear are basically what was being worn in the 1990s. I don’t want to belabor this point too much, since it’s probably budgetary reasons more than anything why the look hadn’t changed on the show, but I still think it’s interesting that, unless you watch the scenes set in space or on alien worlds, you’d almost swear this was a show about the military in the 1990s. The civilian wear, unlike that of other shows (I’m looking at you, Star Trek and it’s wonderful spinoffs), is also very familiar to a contemporary eye. It’s as though, in some sense, the 1990s never ended.”

    Ridley Scott mentioned that, when deciding what visual feel he was going for in his Blade Runner film, “[t]he most difficult problem . . . involved the look of the film. The nightmare in my mind was that this ‘look’ would merely become an intelligent speculation concerning a city forty years in the future, and nothing more. Believe me, designing Blade Runner was more of a challenge than Alien, simply because it’s much easier to create the environment for a space film rather than a project detailing life on Earth. In any event, I insisted that Blade Runner’s final look be authentic, not just speculative.”
    Scott went on to ask, “What if you could take someone . . . and whisk him back to the Times Square of forty years ago? He wouldn’t, I think, have that many shocks in store for him. Except perhaps for the signage; neon in 1940 must have been much more impressive. A contemporary man wouldn’t be puzzled by forties clothing, either, since we’re seeing something of a resurgence in forties fashions right now [in late 1981, when this interview was conducted] . Fashion is always cyclical.”*

    This is an interesting question about the abilities, motivations, and limitations of fiction writers when creating future-based scenarios. I would suspect that some—as you mentioned, due to financial pressures—find it handy to easily draw on the material world around them and simply project that into the future. The more Ideologically driven (especially if their works are directed at children in hopes of preserving certain traditions) might deem it necessary to make the future minimally recognizable so as to nudge people towards a certain economic or political position. Donnelly’s Caesar’s Columnor Bellamy’s Looking Backward spring to mind.

    “We ran out of enemies in the Tom Clancy series of novels, just to take on pop culture example. And, like in Space: Above and Beyond, the nation needed an extra-terrestrial threat to once again justify its leadership in global affairs in Independence Day.”

    I found Scott’s recent Prometheus interesting because of its emphasis on what people do when they “run out of enemies”: they explore the bigger questions about ontology and the antecedents of the human race (which turns out to be dependent on another species. I don’t think I spoiled the movie by inserting that last cryptic comment).

    *Ridley Scott, quoted in Paul M. Sammon, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (New York, Harper, 1996), 73-74.

    • Correction: “without ‘pushing’ people’s ‘buttons’; should be followed by a comma, not a semicolon.

      • Thanks for the wonderful reply! Pointing to Ridley’s Scott work is intriguing, because as you said, he presented a unique vision of the future. When it comes to the “Alien” franchise, I’ve always wondered about the shape of Earth in that particular vision of the future. More to the point, where is humanity when we still need a Colonial Marines force? That franchise has so much vitality in it….if harnessed correctly of course.

    • And you wrote about “Star Trek Deep Space Nine”? There’s so much to digest from that show in terms of race, gender, the idea of humanity’s future…it’ll provide some fodder for a future post. The Ben-Jake father/son relationship (and Avery Brooks’ behind the scenes prodding on the issue) alone could be an intriguing academic project.

      • Avery Brooks is an interesting guy. I seem to remember some comments he expressed in the documentary, The Captains, about playing an African-American (from New Orleans, if I’m not mistaken) starship captain for the Star Trek franchise.

        It’s interesting to speculate what life was like in Louisiana from our present up through the 24th century. Sometimes it does seem as if twentieth-century sensibilities are simply transplanted to the future with no visible changes (maybe that’s asking too much from a television show).

    • Yes, I remember that post quite well. When I first read it I started considering writing a post about science fiction. I just didn’t work up the courage to do it until now.

    • Mark,

      Are you aware of any conferences recently (or upcoming) that have addressed this topic (science fiction)—particularly from the angle of U.S. intellectual history—and that plan on publishing some of their fruits?

      • Sadly, no. There is this conference in October in Indi. that might welcome a panel on science fiction as intellectual history, though. 🙂

      • Mark,

        I just realized you are co-chair for this year’s USIH conference. I wasn’t able to attend the first two conferences, but am hoping to get out to Indiana this year.

        Has anyone else offered suggestions for a possible sci-fi panel? I would be interested in presenting something. I’m still doing course work here at UT-Dallas, but I’m finding some interrelated themes in my “Film Noir” class.

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