There is a brutal, painful passage towards the end of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road-a sort of parallel universe Kerouac-ian tale where girls and jazz and marijuana are replaced with ash and decay and cannibalism; in which a dying father addresses his young son. The exchange is a fair summation of what the novel is all about:
“The man took his hand, wheezing. You need to go on, he said. I can’t go with you. You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road. We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go. It’s all right.”
Much like the rest of The Road, the conversation is beautiful in a way that makes you feel anxious and sad; yet probably the only part of the novel that reaches towards anything resembling hope. I suppose you could debate whether or not The Road is a work of science fiction, but the elements are all there-the post-apocalyptic landscape and the bands of roving madmen ala Mad Max, the tepid exploration of an unknown world, the unambiguously drawn sides of good and evil. However, thematically, the tie that most binds The Road to other great works of science fiction is the connection between father and child. Perhaps surprisingly, once you peel away the black masks and the light sabers and the talking raccoons and the homicidal robots, many contemporary works of the genre are, at their core, stories of parental love. Stories about leaving a world to your children that’s a better place than the one you are leaving.
“This has been a long time coming. Now it’s here. Keep going south. Do everything the way we did it…Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can’t take any chances. Do you hear?”
In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey takes a literal trip through time and space and dimension to find a more habitable planet for his daughter. Just like Harry Chapin’s Cats in the Cradle, it’s less a story about the man on the moon and more about the effect that time and distance has on a relationship, a story about the importance of saying “I love you” while you’re still around to do it, while the recipient is still willing and open to hearing it.
Children of Men tells the story of Theo, a man escorting a young pregnant woman through a collapsing civilization to save the girl-to save the human race from extinction. His actions in the face of overwhelming danger are driven by a desire to pay tribute to the death of his young son. The entire movie is about man’s love for child. It’s a movie rooted in realism, and perhaps the most fantastical aspect of it is the idea of a man getting a second chance to change himself in a world that rarely offers do-overs. It’s fitting that Theo dies at the end of Men, able to let go of his life with the peace of mind that he made something of it, something his son would be proud of.
“I want to be with you.
You can’t. You have to carry the fire.
Is it real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.”
What Cormac McCarthy calls “carrying the fire”-hope-goodness-a parent’s undying, burning love for child-isn’t always manifested in the super-serious prestige science fiction works, either. Its there in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, when Peter Quill kills his birth-father to save the man that raised him, only to have that surrogate sacrifice himself to ensure that Quill survives. It’s there in Armageddon when Bruce Willis kills himself to save the man his daughter is in love with. It’s there in Independence Day, when Randy Quaid “I’m Baaaaaaaack’s” himself all the way into the belly of an alien mothership to save the human race and ensure his estranged son’s survival. It’s there in Terminator, when Linda Hamilton fights Arnold Schwarzenegger to save her unborn son. Those three movies, which include a talking tree, an alien invasion, and a naked future governor-all are rooted in the immense, unstoppable love that only blood can feel.
“You have my whole heart. You always did. You’re the best guy. You always were. If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.”
The end of this exchange points to a religious, spiritual aspect that the rest of the text ignores or deems unnecessary in the waves of unrelenting despair, to acknowledge. The Alien franchise is possibly the most overtly religious work of science-fiction, marked thematically by episodes of re-birth and creationism and the possible existence of a supreme being. While not always as explicit as Alien or Prometheus, almost all works of science-fiction are parables. Whether it be the post-9/11 hysteria and paranoia captured by War of the Worlds or the poisonous branches globalization illustrated in Avatar, Sci-Fi uses its ability to shift time and space to examine complex, difficult issues. Perhaps none more complex or difficult than the spirit of love.
It’s not difficult to understand why stories told in galaxies far, far away are so successful in capturing the essence of the family bond. Human emotion, feeling, is a challenging, near-impossible place to explore and explain. Love, like the endless canvas of space, is a nearly impossible thing to describe; to visualize in a way that’s tangible. It’s too complicated. The world of science-fiction is a world in which anything is possible-in which visual possibilities are endless and amorphous. Impossible stories become easier to tell without our current world’s restriction. In the world of science-fiction, “moving heaven and earth” for a loved one isn’t a metaphor. It’s a distinct possibility.
For the lucky ones, it’s an emotion and a desire that every parent feels the moment they first lay eyes on their child. An overwhelming urge to teach and to show compassion and to protect. To shield from the bad in the world and harness as much of the good as possible-for as long as they live. And when it’s time for them to leave? Whether to another dimension or to the ashes they rose from. How lucky they would be-what a life to have lived-in any world-having given their children a fire to carry forever. Cormac McCarthy considered this cycle of life most beautifully. Considered this way, reading the cyclical nature of his father-son exchange over and over again, it suddenly becomes indiscernible as to whom is talking to whom.
“We were always lucky. You’ll be lucky again. You’ll see. Just go.”