In an idle moment I have sometimes played at imagining alternate identities for myself. Curiously, these musings almost never involve fantasies in the conventional sense, i.e., visions of scoring the winning goal for Manchester United in a Champions League Final, or becoming a real-life secret agent James Bond, or the man who breaks Jessica Alba’s heart.
Instead I wonder what it would have been like to be someone I actually could have become, with just a wrinkle or two in my genetic and environmental past. Along such lines, I have imagined myself a best-selling novelist, an actor or movie director, a perpetual graduate student or… one of those frustrated people who send angry e-mails to newspaper columnists, expressing their outrage that they don’t have a forum to broadcast their opinions, given that someone as inept as the columnist has been granted this privilege (um… hold on… I actually HAVE done that last one!)
Having been an avid Isaac Asimov reader in my younger years, a particularly plausible alternative destiny with which I have sometimes toyed is that of a fanatical science-fiction fan. I was reminded of this recently when, out of sheer curiosity, I dipped a trembling toe into the roiling waters of science-fiction geekdom by entering Forbidden Planet, a London store that sells sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia. There, I saw an astonishing assortment of merchandise that these films, books and programmes have produced. And if I were so inclined, I could have even got myself a costume to dress up as a Klingon or Imperial Storm Trooper.
It’s easy enough to mock the people who fanatically and religiously follow this stuff, and indeed many in the mass media surrender to the temptation to do so. Recently, there have been a few snide stories about obsessive ComicCon attendees or, a couple of years ago, about Avatar fans being depressed and having suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora. I also remember a few about the Star Wars fans who lined up days in advance to attend the last instalment in George Lucas’ frighteningly popular series.
But you don’t need the depressed Avatar fans or a doctorate in sociology to figure out that a large percentage of these people are eager to escape this world for a more satisfactory reality — one in which they would not suffer the indignities heaped on social misfits on our own often-cruel planet.
One of my own favourites, Star Trek, is set 300 years in the future, in a world where, at least among the inhabitants of Planet Earth, war, poverty, nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred have been eliminated. In other words it is a world that, for all its technological wonders, does not include recognisable human beings. As its legions of critics never tire of pointing out, the universe of the Star Wars films is even less plagued by anything resembling moral complexity. The good guys are really good, the bad guys are really bad, and the odds of good triumphing over evil are roughly equivalent to those of a Star Wars film turning a profit.
Nevertheless there is more to sci-fi and the like than escapism. Although I never became a science-fiction fanatic, I still remember a moment from the first time I saw the original Star Wars film. Early on, there is a panoramic shot of the landscape of an alien planet. It is sunset — and suddenly we see two suns lingering on the edge of the horizon. In the end, it is good sci-fi writers’ ability to touch the longing for the mythic, for whatever might lie beyond this world, that has Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar fans and their brethren searching for more than just another means of amusing ourselves to death.
Ultimately, it is really a search for meaning; for something greater than ourselves. Some might even call it the search for God.