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.
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.
 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.